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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?

Updates

Every social media service gives us the power to write updates – tweets, notes, blog posts – public texts where we are free to express ourselves in anyway we like. And so Chapter 4 of The Psychology of Social Media begins with the Twitter Joke Trial – a classic case of online disinhibition, where people say things online they might not say in the ‘real world’.

A sense of invisibility when posting is noted, which led to a discussion of the Facebook News Feed outcry, and a re-examination of the privacy paradox. Users’ frustration over losing control of their updates’ publicity, yet continuing to post personal information publicly, is interpreted with regard to the ‘Facebook iceberg’.

Algorithmic timelines threaten us with obsolescence unless we post popular updates, and as a result our attention is focussed on the visible tip of social media activity. Furthermore, while social media prefers current content, it nevertheless has a permanent quality: even when updates are out-of-date, they are still indefinitely searchable.

Hence, Chapter 4 concludes by examining how we deal with the temporality of our updates. While we don’t want them to fade from view over time, having a lifetime archive publicly available forever can be an unpleasant experience: the past collapsed onto the present.

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Connections

After creating a profile, the next step we take on social media is making connectionns. Hence Chapter 3 of The Psychology of Social Media is about how we connect with people online – friends, family, and everyone else.

It begins with a case study on the ‘ice bucket challenge’ which showed the power of connecting with others on social media to create positive effects.

However, this chapter shows that the psychology of connecting with people online is considerably more complex. For example, research shows that Facebook and Snapchat have different social benefits for their users, in terms of maintaining either close bonds or loose acquaintances. It also explores Dunbar’s numbers with regard to adding more friends and followers may not improve access to emotional support.

Considering the groups within our connections brings us to context collapse: because we have different social contexts mixed within our social media connections, and no certainty about who is paying attention at any one time, we struggle to imagine who our audiences actually are. This lack of insight into social media connections, and potential frictions within them, leads to a discussion of the social network characteristics of cyberbullying.

Finally, Chapter 3 reflects on how we might refrain from spreading ‘fear of missing out’ – FOMO – amongst those most susceptible to it in our connections.

This chapter is available as a free download!

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Profiles

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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