Social media is a broad term that covers everything from collaborative websites like Wikipedia to massive online universes like Second Life. All of the top 20 websites on Alexa.com, excluding search engines, are social media sites. Perhaps the most popular social media sites at the moment are Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, but social media has permeated nearly all websites to some extent, and it has become an expectation of website visitors to be given at least some interactive features.
The growth of social media is so prevalent that, for some, it has become the primary means of communication. On the whole, this is not necessarily a negative thing. Some people who would not have otherwise communicated with each other at all – old high school buddies, for example – can now keep in touch, even if only at a superficial level. But when it comes to business, the distribution of news, and making deeper personal connections, social media presents some obstacles that can leave people with a disconnected flow of communication.
Defining Social Boundaries
According to the managed server company 34SP.com, social media can be divided into five categories:
1. Collaboration: wikis, open content, social bookmarking, and social news
2. Communication: blogs, micro-blogging, and social networking
3. Multimedia: photo, video, and music sharing
4. Reviews and opinions: product and employer/educator reviews
5. Entertainment: virtual worlds and social gaming
In almost every case, social media venues offer two forms of communication: public and private. It is up to the users to decide what information they will make public and what information will be reserved only for certain people. On social networking sites like Facebook, for example, a person who posts a public message on his friend’s wall might be likened to two people meeting at a party and talking openly. In some cases, other people may even join the conversation with comments or the very impersonal “Like” button.
Just like real life, however, some people may not be at the party. This is particularly true of Twitter, where thousands of tweets may come across a person’s sphere of friends and followers, but that user will only view the portion of those tweets sent while she is online. While it is possible to browse through history and even scour archives of conversations anywhere on the web, most people do not have time for it, and as a result, the information that is most widely conveyed at the social “party” comes from the person who figuratively shouts the loudest.
As we stated, there is not necessarily anything wrong with the “party” style of communication. It has worked for real world networking for generations, both in social and business environments. The problem arises from situations that may warrant closer, more direct communication, but which are relegated to disconnected social media experiences.
As an example, let’s suppose that someone named Alicia is having an emotional crisis. She is so accustomed to announcing the events of her life on Twitter and Facebook, that she does not even think to ask a friend directly. In fact, it may even be more comfortable for her to call for help in such a fashion. In many cases, one of her friends might happen to see her latest status and will contact her in private, but there is also the possibility that no one sees it or that the people who do, only make general supportive comments. As a result, Alicia feels ignored when it may not have been anyone’s intent to ignore her.
Ideally, at least one person will pick up an important piece of information and then pass it on to numerous other people, but in many cases, this only happens for controversial issues or high profile amusements.
Forming Communication Circles
In the early days of blogging, one of the most critical tools for bloggers and blog readers was RSS (really simple syndication). With it, users could decide which blogs were important enough to read regularly and have those posts delivered to their RSS program or user account on a feed harvesting service. Many of these programs and services allow users to filter their feeds, organize them according to subject matter, and even share them.
Unfortunately, RSS has never become widely adopted, and most people who use the web tend to wander through it, much like the way people might randomly flip through the channels on television rather than scheduling programs they like with their DVRs.
For social media sites that lack a true RSS feature, it is necessary to form social media circles – smaller spheres of communication within their larger list of friends or followers. Some of the sites have tools that make this easier, allowing users to subscribe to other users, create smaller groups of special friends or colleagues, and track some friends more closely than others.
As social media continues to expand and become an increasingly dominant part of the online experience, keeping the flow of communication connected and relevant will become critical. At this point, it is not something that will happen automatically, and social media users will have to learn to cater their communication channels to meet their needs, or risk missing the information they actually intended to receive. With close family and friends, business partners, and even political figures now often using social media to communicate, the future of communication may very well depend on it.
Tavis J. Hampton is a librarian and writer with a decade of experience in information technology, web hosting, and Linux system administration. He currently works for LanternTorch.Net, which offers writing, editing, tech training, and information architecture services.