WHAT IS SOCIAL MEDIA?
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What is social media? Social media is a word used to describe the creation, distribution, absorption and recreation of media and information by a group of individuals. It must be a community effort to be social, otherwise it is just mass media. There are many applications of social media. This list includes, but is not limited to, social networks, reference and research, entertainment, journalism, art and news. The emergence and persistent nature of social media has forever changed the way humanity defines mass communication.
To understand and fully appreciate social media as it exists now one has to understand the basic structure or its origins and why it ever existed in the first place. Social media wouldn’t exist without the internet. Which, in it’s simplest definition is multiple computers and devices connected to one another in order to exchange information. Essentially they are connected in order facilitate communication. This digital connection becomes social media when users are creating content and distributing that content to the masses. Many will say that this type of connection first happened in the late 1990s with websites like Friendster or Six Degrees. Quite the contrary, social media began in a different time. A decade when The Watergate Scandal, sideburns and Van Halen were hot topics. Social media actually started in the late 1970s.
Long before myself or the internet existed there was a small collection of networked computers connected to what was called a BBS. Which stands for Bulletin Board System. It allowed people from all over the world to discuss and share information with one another without delay. This system was used by a very small group of computer and technology enthusiasts. Much like the internet as we know it today, many of the individuals using the system did so to make illegal practices such as phone phreaking, virus distribution and pirating software easier. Fortunately of us the system never took off. As it was difficult to use, required expensive hardware and offered little interesting content in return for all the effort it required. That is, unless you’re an enthusiast. Regardless of this fact, it was the first appearance of social media.
Fast forward to 1997, just after Dolly the cloned sheep’s first birthday. A small start up company called Six Degrees changed everything. Six Degree is the first social network, it was also the first of many ‘Web 2.0’ failures. What made Six Degrees so revolutionary is that it was the first website to employ personalized profiles, a profile picture, ‘friends’ and messages. Six Degrees dissolved after being sold in 2001. Shortly after Six Degrees short life had ended Friendster was opened to the public In 2002. While similar to Six Degrees, friendster focused on meeting new people, not just connecting with friends you already had already met.
It’s been eight years sense then and the latest iteration of the social network is in the form of Facebook.com. In 2009 Facebook was listed as the second most visited website in the world, second only to Google. There is no question that Facebook has drastically altered the way young adults from my generation communicate in the United States. Today, it would be considered an act of rebellion by many for a college or high school student to not have a Facebook profile. It would also be considered to be a devastating social hindrance for a young adult or teen to not be listed on Facebook. The reason for this is simple. The majority of communication between college students in my generation is done via Facebook. Birthdays, parties, events, even official school functions such as dances are sometimes posted exclusively on Facebook. Many art students, including myself, use Facebook to promote their artistic services. I would be lost without it.
There are other types of social media that have drastically reshaped the landscape of mass communications. The method that students, professionals, and the general public conduct preliminary research has slowly shifted from the public library, to internet research, and finally to Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Which is a social media website that allows anyone to freely edit information on a rapidly growing digital encyclopedia. A quick Wikipedia search can take you to a page with more information that you could possible ever need on a very specific topic.
Of course, with every new way of thinking comes controversy. Especially when this new way of thinking challenges the definition of “A reliable source”. Many professors, teachers, academics shun the use of wikipedia for it’s possibility for error. This is slowly changing, more often studies are being published arguing that a wikipedia is just as prone to error as the Britannica encyclopedia. The majority of individuals my age have no problem using Wikipedia as a main source for research. The older my generation gets, the more and more accepted it will be. Social Media is changing the way we look at research, soon having a published work of historical, scientific, of cultural research will mean no more than writing a high quality Wikipedia article.
Not all professionals object this oncoming wave of change. LinkedIn is a website designed for young to middle aged professionals wanting to expand their business by using the same ideas pioneered by Six Degrees thirteen years ago. The concepts of ‘contacts’ instead of friends, and a ‘resumé’ instead of a profile work perfectly in this environment. LinkedIn is also a topic of intrigue because it’s gaining a lot of ground in the demographic
Perhaps the slowest of all mass media to adopt social tendencies is the entertainment industry. The television and the motion picture industry have been slow to adapt to the demands of consumers. In those industries communication is still a one way stream. While it is true that there are some fantastic short films and independent television programs are being made and distributed everyday they aren’t being consumed and redistributed like it has with other media forms such as news. The reasoning behind this is because it’s more difficult for people to change the way they see films and what they expect. We, as viewers, are conditioned to seeing flashy production with big budgets. Budgets of this magnitude cannot be achieved without a production studio. At this point the project can no longer be considered a product of social media.
That’s not to say that the entertainment industry hasn’t been changed. The music industry is currently falling apart and being pieced back together in a way that fits this new form of communication. Creating an album doesn’t require nearly as much money as film or television does. This means that it is much more realistic for a musician to create and promote his or her music with the world without a record contract. There are even websites for this specific purpose. Websites like Myspace Music, Pure Volume and CD Baby are all designed to help facilitate recognition and sales in return for traffic and ad revenue.
There are a few niche social media websites that don’t fit into other categories that deserve to be mentioned. One of these oddly specific social networks is last.fm. Last.fm is a very interesting service that allows you to contribute to the website by allowing last.fm to log every song that you play on your ipod or computer. This provides Last.fm with a source of money from market researching companies that work for the big record labels. in return for this service you get music recommendations, and last.fm will pair you with friends who have similar musical taste. The reason why this is mentioned in this essay is because it could possibly replace the slowly dying radio stations and overpriced satellite radio.
Not everything is change in the world of social media. Websites like YouTube present a new form of media that has never been seen before. The content on YouTube.com doesn't fit into any specific area. Most of the videos on YouTube aren’t films nor can they be considered television programs. What YouTube has created is a market for “videos”. Many of the videos on YouTube are nether narrative based or documentary based. These videos can consist of confessions, diary entries, absurdist comedy, musical performance, video experiments, political cartoons, the list could go on and on. It currently has changed the way we look at mass media. Some YouTube users such as ‘Fred’ or ‘Lonelygirl15’ have achieved a very real level of fame that is normally reserved for movie stars. This strange form of fame, the “internet celebrity” has changed and warped the idea of what fame is, and who is ‘on top’. Most of these YouTube celebrities don’t make any money for what they do, what they get is something productive to do with their time and if their good, someone to listen to what they have to say.
The last big change in this long list of social media is perhaps the most important shift in how we see the world. The way we get our news is changing at an unheard of rate. News papers are slowly dissolving into the dark and forgotten depths of Google Cache and the Archive.org’s WayBack Machine. Meanwhile, the publishers behind the papers are franticly trying to find new ways stay relevant and profitable. Often trying to keep their bloated business afloat by charging a slightly discounted rate for a web version of the newspaper. In the end this won’t work. This dramatic change in culture is not something that can be simply ignored. Publishers will have to embrace the shift, downsize dramatically and adapt. If the publishing companies don’t, they won’t survive the next ten years.
News isn’t just in the blogs ether. Democratic social distribution of articles written by bloggers and journalists alike can be found on websites like Reddit or Digg. These websites allow users to vote, or ‘Digg’ what they think is interesting. Inversely users can choose to ‘bury articles. This process quickly leads to the public collectively deciding what goes on the front page and what gets tossed. Going to Digg or Reddit is very convenient for non-users as well. Articles on the front page are usually relevant or at the very least interesting.
In the fast paced jungle that is the internet even blogs are less popular than they were two years ago. Micro-blogging is something that has caught on as of late. Websites like Twitter and Tumblr both feature what they call a dashboard. The dashboard is an area where all the posts of the people that you choose to follow appear. Both Tumblr and Twitter emphasize two important aspects of micro-blogging. They are the concept of Reblogging (or re-tweeting as twitter calls it) and the idea of constantly posting what you find interesting. The combination of these two very important elements leads to some interesting data and statistics. When Michael Jackson died, twitter displayed his name as a trending topic on the front page. This aspect makes Twitter and Tumblr another form of news publication. This would work if the trending topics weren’t so often jokes and memes that are exclusive to Twitter or Tumblr. Micro-blogging is the first social network that was designed from the ground up to be done from a cell phone, not a computer.
Now that the entire gamut of social media has been covered there is only one thing left to discuss. What does the future hold for social media? I believe that the future of social media is outside of the computer. There are some iPhone applications that are pushing in that direction right now, Loopt, a geo-locating application comes close but pays no attention to any sort of community aspect, therefore it is not interesting. I want to see mobile video, photo, and audio all come together in a hybrid form of rich communication that not only operates inter-device, but also cross-platform. I feel that is the natural evolution for social media, the ability to broadcast what you want, when you want, where you want, from what you want.
Gone are the days of listening to a few powerful voices. The future consists of a conversation rather than a lecture. Those days are slowly fading away bringing in a new way to look at media along with a slightly altered culture. There is something beautiful about the human connections that are being made every day. These connections would have been impossible just a few years back. For the first time, thanks to the new wave of social media and anonymity that accompanies. Freedom of speech has been fully realized.Follow my blog with bloglovin