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What is social media? Here’s a psychological definition

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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?


What are the values of social media? The last chapter of The Psychology of Social Media begins by repeating the book’s psychological definition of social media. In other words, the idea that these online services encourage us to digitise previously private personal information.

Fundamentally, Chapter 7 is concerned with two meanings of the word ‘values’ and how this relates to understanding social media. Values can mean numbers and digits, but it can also mean morals and ethics. I argue that to understand the psychology of social media, it is essential to realise that social media’s principles are essentially quantitative.

To illustrate this point, discussion moves to a historic tragedy on the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, and how the idea of commodifying our selves helps understand social media. This brings us to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the psychometric personality research behind it.

However, this kind of research assumes that social media accurately reflects human behaviour. I question this by exploring censorship, fake accounts and black markets for upvotes and comments. This also highlights how little users understand about how social media services operate.

While it might seem a long way off at present, I hope that in the future we will develop not only better methods of managing social media, but better understanding of our selves as a result. We need to clarify our own values, and for social media to better help us to do so.

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While social media is largely concerned with publicity, nearly every service also includes the ability to communicate in private – messaging . As such, Chapter 6 of The Psychology of Social Media is about direct messages or private messages.

It begins with the failed attempt to send a lewd Twitter direct message that became known as the ‘Weinergate’ controversy. This is discussed in relation to the hyperpersonal model of communication, which explains how social media users try to exploit features like being able to edit messages to achieve communication goals that they cannot in face-to-face conversation.

But messages also include timestamps, which are shown to be crucial in understanding Facebook Pokes. Additionally, users’ motivations are explored in this chapter, noting how social media relationships are maintained by disclosing personal information within private messages. While sharing such information publicly does not seem to have the same effect, this chapter also examines indirect messages or subtweets, and the varied impressions that they create of their senders.

Furthermore, the appeal of social media is compared to social messaging services, where it is shown that users prefer the former for informational reasons, and the latter for social satisfaction. However, occasionally social messaging services are used for informational purposes, and the moral dilemmas created by rumour-spreading on WhatsApp during a security emergency is discussed.

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