What is "Social Media"?


All humans can be divided in two groups - those that love categorising things, and those that like criticising other people's categorisations.

It seems that humans have an in-built desire to put things in firm categories. This causes a great deal of arguments. Let's have an argument today!

Here's an excerpt from a recent IOPC press release:

Misconduct proceedings to follow social media investigations

A total of five police officers from different forces will face misconduct action after two separate investigations by the Independent Office for Police Conduct into social media messages
… we looked at allegations that seven officers from several forces breached standards of professional behaviour when they used the Signal messaging platform to share information …
The IOPC is continuing to investigate the conduct of five officers … who allegedly sent discriminatory messages as part of a WhatsApp group
Independent Office for Police Conduct

(Emphasis added.)

The first thing to note is that this discussion of what counts as Social Media is utterly trivial compared to the matters being discussed by the IOPC. Please take a moment to think about how you can tackle sexist and abusive behaviour.

When I read the headline, I automatically thought the officers had been accused of sharing things publicly. But that doesn't seem to be the case.

Are Signal and WhatsApp forms of Social Media? Let's see what people on the Social Media platform of Twitter have to say:

My instinct was to say that they are not Social Media. One-to-one messaging may count as socialising, but it isn't SM!

But, of course, all those private messaging platforms have a group chat function. Is a family chat on Signal part of SM? What about organising your pub quiz team on WhatsApp? They are, in a sense, private. You have to be invited to join.

Just like some of the groups on Facebook. The world's biggest social media platform…

What about Telegram? They have thousands of open groups anyone can join.

Argh! This is all so confusing!

Let's take a step back and see what we mean by "media" - without the social.

TV, magazines, newspapers, radio. They're a monologue. A team of professionals create a message and then broadcast it. There's no right of reply. There is a high barrier to entry.

The letters section in a newspaper is an early form of Social Media - but even that is highly curated.

Social Media - newsgroups, blogs, email lists - are a dialogue. Or perhaps a polylogue. Multiple people - often amateurs - publish their messages and replies. There is little to no moderation. There are few barriers to entry.

Early email lists are a good example of this. Archived on the web so anyone can read. Conversations are not curated. Anyone can join in.

I think what's tripping me up is that I expect Social Media to be public. Anyone can read a newsgroup or blog. Anyone can comment or reply.

But private groups - on any platform - don't fit my woolly definition of what I think "media" is.

Twitter is social media. Twitter Direct messages are not.

Telegram chats are not social media. Telegram groups are.

Public Slack channels are social media. Private work groups are not.

Wikipedia is not social media. The discussion pages are.

Does that make sense?

As I said at the start - this is a trivial discussion. I don't say this to cast aspersions on the ongoing investigations. I'm just curious as to what systems - or facets of systems - feel like social media.

The alleged behaviour of these officers is wrong. It would be wrong if it were via email, Facebook Messenger, or in-person locker-room chat. But, what intrigues me is how we instinctively categorise things - and the consequences that has on our discourse. Would your first reaction to the above article have been different if the headline had said "an investigation into private messages"?

The language we use shapes the opinions of those around us. I think it is helpful to be as precise as possible when discussing contentious issues.


3 thoughts on “What is "Social Media"?

  1. DinoNerd says:

    When I saw your title, I thought this would be going in an entirely different direction. This would be the tendency of older means of online many-to-many mass communication to cease to be considered social media.

    In particular, blog aggregation sites like LiveJournal and its clones were called "social media" when I began using one. Later I encountered numerous surveys which asked if I was on social media, and followed up with a list of 4 or 5 choices. Those sites were never on the list. All the ones that were on the list were more recent and, importantly, had some "algorithm" that chose what I would get to see, other than the simple rules like "give me everything by this set of people, in order by time posted". I.e. if I could count on seeing a particular post, it wasn't called "social media".

    By that logic, Facebook, Twitter, Nextdoor, and probably LinkedIn are or have become "social media". Wikipedia talk pages are not; I can arrange to be notified for all postings to a selected list of talk pages. You blog is not social media, and neither is mine. And I'm proud to report that I am "not on social media".

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