By Stevie Docherty
Over the course of my ongoing doctoral research on media coverage of the 2011 English riots, which involves working with Facebook data, I have begun to feel increasingly uncomfortable with using the term ‘social media’ in my own work. Here, I want to try to explain some of the reasons why.
Let’s start with the way we often unthinkingly refer to ‘the media’ in everyday life. The anthropologist Dominic Boyer points out that wide use of this term, ‘as a singular noun and collective subject’, is relatively recent. Over the short space of time from the 1970s, ‘the media’ has become a ‘placeholder made powerful’ (Boyer quoted in Hoskins 2011:19). The monolithic ‘the media’ stands in for any or all media. In an even shorter space of time, ‘social media’ has become another powerful placeholder, standing in for the variousness of media that are classed as ‘social.’ And instead of questioning the ‘frequency, ubiquity and aptness’ of ‘social media’ as a placeholder (ibid), I think we might be letting it get away with too much.
First, there is a sense that ‘social media’ irons over the specificities of the media it collectivises, encouraging blindness to the underlying architectures, the distinct affordances and characteristics of each of the platforms and services that are lumped together – so that we see them not as themselves, but as examples of the wider category of ‘social media’. For example, Facebook is a very different medium from Twitter. But the two are often run together as a portmanteau exemplar in popular discourse – Facebook-and-Twitter. Superficially, their sameness is privileged over their differences.
A related question is how far we can meaningfully hive media off into categories at all anymore. Media scholars such as Hoskins (2013) and Merrin (2009) argue that dividing media into categories based on assumed common forms and functions is increasingly impossible. This is not to say that individual media are not in themselves distinct from each other. Television is still different from Twitter. Rather, it is that media forms are changing constantly in interaction with each other in the rapidly changing media ecology (Merrin 2009: 23). For example, TV content is shared on Twitter all the time. Viewer tweets are featured on TV programmes. Additionally, in common with other powerful placeholders like ‘the media’, or ‘the news’, ‘social media’ functions to iron over temporal ecological shifts. As David Karpf (2012) notes, the online environment changes over time, all the time. For Karpf, it makes little sense to talk about ‘the internet’ because what this refers to at Time X will always be different from what it refers to at Time X+1 – as anyone who has tried to keep up with the changing Terms of Service of their online accounts will know. So how useful is it to refer to a temporally fixed or analytically distinct category of ‘social media’ – at least without serious qualifications?
The term ‘social media’ appears to have originated in business and marketing in the mid-1990s before being popularised in wider discourse from around 2004 onwards (Bercovici 2010). In 1997, the former AOL executive Ted Leonsis talked about “social media” in terms of offering AOL users “places where they can be entertained, communicate, and participate in a social environment” (ibid). But what constitutes ‘a social environment’ may differ widely between the commercial sector and the fields of academic social theory and research. This only becomes problematic when everyone is using the same placeholder across disciplines and sectors without clarifying whether we are talking about the same things under the hood. This leads to a hugely important question: what exactly is ‘the social’ in ‘social media’ (cf. Lovink 2012)?
We might further ask whether ‘social media’ enforces an artificial distinction between social/not social. Depending on our understandings of the social, emerging communications media may certainly emphasise or allow different strands of sociality to emerge, or different ways of being social. But at first glance, the term does not imply this so much as that other media are not social, or are intrinsically less so – in the same way that careless use of the term ‘new media’ can imply a problematic break with the ‘old’. Nick Couldry has argued that researching media should involve analysing media as practice, and attending to habits of use. These habits of use are themselves formed and attain levels of stability through practices. Media are recognised as being “social at a basic level through the very acts that stabilize them as practices and distinguish specific practices from each other” (Couldry 2012: 44). Similarly, we can understand all acts of communication as “constituted of and through the social” (Jewitt 2013: 251). From this perspective, it is hard to think of any media that are not social in some way. The placeholder becomes meaningless.
If we admit that the term ‘social media’ conveys a special kind of social-ness, a possible flip-side is that it hides the aspects, affordances and implications of ‘social media’ that might be understood as actively anti-social. Andrew Keen (2012), for example, has discussed social-as-antisocial media during the 2011 English riots. At the time, the Prime Minister stated how “everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media” (Halliday 2011). The paradox was noted, but the placeholder persisted. Of course, that a particular medium may have effects or result in outcomes that are defined by certain actors or in certain ways as anti-social does not mean that the medium-in-itself is inherently anti-social. But if we need to ask what the social is in ‘social media’, we also need to ask about its hidden converse. Finally, last year witnessed intense debate among researchers in response to the publication of the results of Facebook’s covert emotional contagion experiment (see Kramer et al. 2014). This should serve to reinforce our uncertainty as to whether ‘social media’ is the best name for what are often powerful entities with their own commercial and research agendas, which may be seen as more or less unacceptable by different individuals or groups in different contexts (see for example van Dijk 2013).
I recognise that we need to speak a common research language, and using innumerable different placeholders to refer to the same thing is as dangerous as using one placeholder for everything. So when I refer to Facebook in my writing, I use the term ‘social network site’ (SNS), which I understand as a more specific, localised technical term than ‘social media’ or ‘social medium.’ In danah boyd and Nicole Ellison’s definition, SNSs are web based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system (2008: 211). boyd and Ellison choose purposefully to use the word ‘network’ instead of ‘networking’ because they argue that the ‘networking’ implies initiating new relationships, and this is not how these sites are mostly used. Instead, users often communicate within a network that is already established to some extent (e.g. friends off Facebook become ‘friends’ on Facebook). This highlights the importance of paying attention to the terminology we are using, what we mean by it, and what might be understood by others as a result.
** Note: This blog also appears in the e-book Social Media in Social Research: Blogs on Blurring the Boundaries (Woodfield 2014). The collection was crowdsourced and published by the New Social Media, New Social Science network (NSMNSS).
boyd d. and Ellison N. (2008) ‘Social Network Sites: Definition, History and Scholarship.’ Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 13(1): 210-230.
Boyer D. (2007) Understanding Media: A Popular Philosophy. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm.
Couldry N. (2012) Media, Society, World: Social Theory and Digital Media Practice. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Hoskins A. (2013) ‘Death of a Single Medium.’ Media, War and Conflict 6(1): 3-6.
Hoskins A. (2011) ‘Media, Memory, Metaphor: Remembering and the Connective Turn.’ Parallax 17(4): 19-31.
Jewitt C. (2013) ‘Multimodal Methods for Researching Digital Technologies.’ In: Price S., Jewitt C. and Brown B. (eds.) The SAGE Handbook of Digital Technology Research. London: SAGE.
Karpf, D. (2012) ‘Social Science Research Methods in Internet Time.’ Information, Communication and Society 15(5): 639-661.
Kramer A., Guillory J. and Hancock J. (2014) ‘Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks.’ PNAS 111(24): 8788-8790.
Keen A. (2012) Digital Vertigo. London: Constable.
Merrin W. (2009) ‘Media Studies 2.0: upgradging and open-sourcing the discipline.’ Interactions 1(1): 17-34.
Van Dijk J. (2013) The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Woodfield, K. (2014) Social Media in Social Research: Blogs on Blurring the Boundaries. E-book. NSMNSS. NatCen/Sage.
Stevie Docherty is a Sociology PhD student at Glasgow. Her research focuses on media, security and the 2011 English riots, from a media ecology perspective. Contact her at email@example.com.