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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?


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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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.

Read More »Updates