What’s in a social media?

I’m currently working on a book with my adviser, Serge Proulx (UQAM), and Lorna Heaton (UdeM) about social media, its challenge for ethics, research and communication.  And the last thing on my ‘to do’ list before Christmas break is to write the introduction for the book.  The funny thing is, I’ve been working on that book for months—reviewing contributors’ texts, reading, taking notes, and so on.  But it’s only now, at the very end of the process, that I find myself googling “social media”…

Not that I don’t have my personal understanding of social media.  But every day, we ear people talking about “social media”, “social networks”, “Web 2.0”.  And, they often use these words as synonyms.  It’s common, but it’s confusing.  In fact, what’s in a social media?

Back to basics, a social medium is:

1-    Social: So people use it, people connect with it, people socialized with it.

2-    Media: Meaning that it is an online channel/system/economical, cultural and technical device that supports and affects communication.


In a well-cited article published in 2010, Kaplan and Haenlein propose a couple of main characteristics to define social media.  First, they build their understanding of social media from Web 2.0 and from UGC:  “Social Media is a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content.”  Then they use a couple of theoretical lenses to build a thicker definition of social media.

On the media side:

–       Presence theory (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976) to define the “social presence” provided by a medium.  Social presence is determined here by the intimacy and immediacy allowed by the medium (e.g. a synchronous private chat is more intimate and immediate then a public message on a forum).

–       Media richness theory (Daft & Lengel, 1986) to think about the quality of presence offered by such social media.  Here, a medium that minimized communication ambiguity is consider to be “rich”, and ambiguity comes from the lack of information transmitted by certain media (e.g. telephone doesn’t transmit visual insights, but videoconference or Skype does, so the latter is richer).

And on the social side:

–       Goffman’s interactionism theory (1959) to determine the type of self-presentation allowed by the social media.  Management of the personal identity and control among publics are key to characterize the type of self-presentation.

–       Finally, self-disclosure online (Schau & Gilly 2003) is use by the authors to think about how a social medium allows the diffusion of personal information or restrict it.

Kaplan and Haenlein build this table with these theoretical approaches:

I personally find this chart very useful.  But, wait a minute.  This chart provides clearer boundaries, but it might still be too large…  Is World of Warcraft a social medium?  Not sure about that… although WOW works with my little home-made definition of social media (i.e. media as a technical/economical/cultural system that supports and affects communication between users who interact and contribute online).  Does the “game” side of it make me feel like it doesn’t belong under the social media umbrella?  Or is it something else?

It might have something to do with the purpose and the nature of the participation requested from users.  In an online game like WOW or Second Life, the main purpose is to play.  In other social media platforms, from Instagram to Facebook, the purpose is to share content or comment on content.  The very nature of the participation requested by the platform is different.  This is a half-baked idea and I don’t want to reduce gaming to “play” – Game Studies have shown how complex social interactions can be in such environment.  But I do have the feeling that these kinds of online spaces are social media.

That brings me back to my book intro.  What’s in a social media?  We might still need to work on that concept to refine the boundaries of our definitions (at least mine).  The nature of the participation is probably a relevant entry to dig a bit deeper, as is the type of uses and practises related to these platforms.

Have a merry Christmas everyone, cheers!


Daft, R. L., & Lengel, R. H. (1986). Organizational information requirements, media richness, and structural design. Management Science, 32(5), 554-571.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Schau, H. J., & Gilly, M. C. (2003). We are what we post? Selfpresentation in personal web space. Journal of Consumer Research, 30(3), 385-404.

Short, J., Williams, E., & Christie, B. (1976). The social psychology of telecommunications. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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