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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?


For many of us, sharing photos and videos online is the main appeal of social media. Hence, Chapter 5 of The Psychology of Social Media focusses on why we like to do this, and what we gain from doing so.

Beginning with the Snappening incident, where Snapchat photos and videos, far from disappearing once viewed, were leaked on the internet. This is interpreted in relation to the concept of presence, or the illusion whereby a mediated experience does not feel mediated. Hence understanding shared media as a kind of psychological travel, this chapter next reports on Instagram users sharing location data with their holiday photographs.

Additionally, this chapter considers how users of two live video streaming services attempted to authentically develop their identities by providing their audiences with unedited access to their lives. However, this shown to be a precarious practice, as Meerkat was abruptly discontinued when Periscope was bought by Twitter.

Other hazards of building social capital on social media discussed include sharing self-portrait photographs – or selfies – and the onerous amount of labour involved, which seems prohibitive, even for the highly attractive.

Finally, Chapter 5 examines the collective labour of the Harlem Shake videos, and the commercial aspects of these kind of memes that most of us know nothing about.

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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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