What is social media? Here’s a psychological definition

Let’s begin by specifying what we’re talking about – we need a definition! What exactly is social media? Everyone knows what social media is, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to define! You know it when you see it, right? Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat – that kind of thing? But what about Wikipedia? Or WhatsApp? Are they social media too? If not, why not?

I define social media as online services which encourage users to digitise and publicly share previously private personal information. Whether it’s uploading a selfie or following celebrity accounts, social media services are constantly asking us to share more private information and personal opinions. Obviously, the idea here is to make our experience of these services more personalised for us and make it more relevant and enjoyable, but we should not forget the basic point here: social media runs on an engine whose fuel is human psychology.

In addition to this definition of social media, we should also consider the core features that we find in every service.

Core features:

  • Profiles: every social media service has a place that you can call your own little corner of the internet, where you can choose a username, add some information about yourself, upload a photograph and that kind of thing
  • Connections: there has to be a feature where you can connect with other people, whether adding friends or family, or following other accounts or being followed by them
  • Updates: whether tweets, status updates or blog posts, there also has to be a feature where you can write something in plain text
  • Media: whether photographs, videos, livestream or audio, all social media services have some way for users to upload and share some form of media. In the past, it was possible to distinguish social media from social networking services because they
  • Messaging: even though social media is very much about publicity and visibility, every social media service also has a feature where you can talk secretly, usually called private messaging or direct messaging
  • Values: finally, everywhere you go on social media, there are numbers everywhere. Total followers, numbers of friends, how many people liked your photo – there are numbers everywhere. These numbers are important for how we as users navigate social media, but also important for how social media understands us.

This rules out Wikipedia because, despite being very much a place where anyone can participate, it really doesn’t have the same emphasis on personal experiences – it’s much more about general knowledge. Similarly, while WhatsApp has some of these elements too, it is too much of private experience to fall into this definition. And while you might think that YouTube doesn’t have any status updates – that feature is there if you go and look for it!

To learn more about the psychology of social media, check out the links below.

The Psychology of Social Media (Routledge) by Dr Ciarán Mc Mahon

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Our profiles are where we spend most time when we first create a social media account. Chapter 2 of The Psychology of Social Media is about we express our identities in them.

It begins with a case study of the ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’ hoax, and what that tells us about honestly expressing oneself online. The structure of profiles is critical, as differences in customisation between social media services produce different levels of fakery. Hence, it may seem easier to implicitly display our identities by association, rather than explicitly describing ourselves in words: ‘show rather than tell’.

As a result, this chapter also explores how we can experience feelings of inauthenticity if we put too much work into trying to express ourselves accurately. This leads to a discussion of the privacy paradox: where social media users profess themselves to be concerned with privacy issues yet post considerable amounts of personal information to their profiles.

Consequently, this chapter explores how we may also find it easier to use temporary accounts or anonymous social media services with no profiles at all.

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