What is Social Media? Exploring Meaning, Types, Characteristics, and History

What is Social Media? Exploring Meaning, Types, Characteristics, and History

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Syed Aquib Ur
Syed Aquib Ur Rahman
Assistant Manager
Updated on Aug 6, 2023 13:30 IST

What exactly is social media, and how does it affect our day-to-day communication? Explore the concept of social media, where users connect, interact, and share content online, fostering real-time engagement and community-building beyond geographical limitations.

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If you are using the internet and have come to this blog, you already know what’s social media. At this point in our lives, most of us synonymously use sites or applications like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to refer to this definition. 

It is not incorrect, but is only a little one-sided. Here we are only referring to technology companies for virtual interaction and interconnectivity that offer social media services for our desktop or smartphone. Little does this capture the growing categories in or forms of social media.  

For example, Reddit is for being a part of discussions within specific communities. We cannot say the same for Instagram, which is mostly a photo sharing app. 

Overall, social media sites enable us to connect with friends, colleagues, and family. Besides maintaining personal connections and networks, small to large companies use social media apps to reach and engage consumers. And at the same time, some use social media only for consuming information.

Maybe by now, you can deduce that there could be multiple definitions or aspects which are missing when answering the question, ‘What is social media?’ 

What’s Social Media, Exactly?

Social media is the main form of real-time internet-based communication. It is used for creating, sharing, and exchanging content through ideas and information across communities and networks virtually. This kind of communication is possible through the  many social platforms today (and growing) that allow users to interact with each other at any time and anywhere. 

Social media is integral to our modern day communication, and it creates a dialogue through comments, shares, and likes among the relevant friends or audience. It provides the way for how we want to present ourselves virtually, build our personal brands, or as marketers –  describe a business’s offerings, engage with customers, and much more. 

In the 2015 book, Social Media: Defining, Developing, and Divining, authors Caleb T Carr and Rebecca A Hayes describe a widely accepted definition of the term like this – 

Social media are Internet-based, disentrained, and persistent channels of masspersonal communication facilitating perceptions of interactions among users, deriving value primarily from user-generated content.

They further rephrase this definition as 

Social media are “Internet-based channels that allow users to opportunistically interact and selectively self-present, either in real-time or asynchronously, with both broad and narrow audiences who derive value from user-generated content and the perception of interaction with others.

Here is another popular but older than Carr’s definition of social media from Andreas M Kaplan and Michael Haenlein in the Business Horizons journal on Science Direct. 

Social media are “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.

Do read on What is Social Media Marketing?

Main Elements of Social Media

Based on the findings across scholarly papers in Annual Review journal, social media broadly has four elements associated with it. They are profile, network, stream, and message. Now these elements are common to all platforms, new or old. 

Apart from these four elements, social media today also includes elements such as hashtags, likes, comments, and privacy. 

Profile 

It refers to the user’s public or semi-public digital account on social media platforms.  One displays information about themselves, such as personal photos, bios, and past statuses in their profile. 

The key features of the profile element are as follows. 

  • Visibility – The extent to which others can see information 
  • Persistence – Viewability of content after posting 
  • Audience transparency – Imagined audience for each post 

Here is an example screenshot of Airbnb on Twitter. 

Airbnb social media profile example

Network 

It involves the connections users have with other individuals on social media platforms. Users typically connect with people they already know from face-to-face contexts, such as friends, family, or coworkers. 

And it is not always so. A network can be built without already knowing someone initially in real life. It could be to connect with someone within a similar community or like-minded individual (s). 

Either ways, the network plays a significant role in a social media user’s online presence and in life. 

Stream

It represents the aggregated flows of content that we see on the home pages of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Streams act as a centre display for recent news about other accounts users are connected to on the platform. 

The stream exhibits a high level of awareness. Users gain knowledge of other people or events in their network. Psychologists say it is associated with social comparison processes, where users evaluate themselves by comparing their opinions and abilities with others. 

Message 

The message element is an important part of social media. It involves focused interactions between two or more users using text and/or other media content.

Social connectedness through messaging fulfils human needs for belongingness and relatedness to others. Messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, are hugely popular. In India alone, there are more than 535.8 million WhatsApp users (Demand Sage). 

Types of Social Media 

Let’s go over the types of social media. This is a broad list of the types that describe which types are popular among social media users. 

Sites for Social Networking

Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are the most popular examples of social networking services. These are designed to connect people with others who share similar interests or backgrounds. 

Users of the social networking sites are empowered to build a network of friends or connections and facilitate communication through posts, messages, and comments. Data from a Search Engine Journal blog shows that there are over 200 million businesses just on Facebook. 

Media Sharing Platforms

Media sharing includes photos and videos. Photo-sharing social media apps include Instagram and Snapchat, while video sharing ones are YouTube and TikTok. 

These platforms have given rise to influencers and content creators who amass huge followings based on their creative output.

Messaging Apps

Popular social media messaging apps, such as WhatsApp and Messenger, provide private and group messaging capabilities. They have become indispensable for personal communication and have also been adopted by businesses for customer support.

Read on What Mobile Marketing Is

Discussion Forums

People use social media for discussions also. Reddit and Quora are among the many social media discussion forums. 

These social media platforms also allow businesses to grow through trends and industries. For example, many content and SEO pros look for long tail keywords or topics on Quora to cover in topic clusters for improving rankings on pillar content. 

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Characteristics of Social Media

There are 5 important characteristics of social media, according to Mayfield (2008). 

Participation

Due to its participatory nature, it allows interested parties to engage in interactions. It blurs the line between media and audience, as users are encouraged to contribute and provide feedback.

Conversationality

Social media is hugely different from traditional media. While the latter deals with one-directional communication, social media enables two-way conversations.

Connectedness 

Social media helps maintain interpersonal ties through mediated interactions. By providing links to other sites, resources, and people, it offers connectedness to its users. 

Community and Commonality 

Social media enables individuals and organizations to communicate with like-minded people and quickly form communities based on common interests or goals. 

Openness

Social media is characterised by its openness to user feedback and participation, with few barriers to accessing information or making comments. The networking philosophy and user-friendly content sharing mechanisms enhance this openness. 

Advantages of Social Media

Here are some benefits of social media. 

Enabling Communication Across Geography

Social media has revolutionized communication, allowing people to connect and stay in touch with loved ones, regardless of distance. Video calls and messaging have made virtual face-to-face interactions possible, bridging gaps between cultures and nations.

Democratises Information Sharing

Social media is responsible for enabling anyone to become a content creator and share their knowledge and experiences with the world. This accessibility to information has empowered individuals and facilitated learning and awareness.

More Cost-Effective than Traditional Media

For businesses, social media has become a game-changer. It provides a cost-effective way to reach potential customers, build brand awareness, and engage with a targeted audience. Influencers, in particular, have emerged as powerful promoters for brands.

Challenges of Social Media

Privacy Concerns 

The ease of sharing information on social media has led to privacy issues, with incidents of data breaches and identity theft becoming more prevalent. 

Cyberbullying 

The anonymity of social media has given rise to cyberbullying and online harassment, affecting individuals, especially young users. Social media platforms are continuously working to combat such behaviour and ensure user safety.

Information Overload and Fake News

With the abundance of information available on social media, it’s challenging to distinguish between credible sources and misinformation. Fake news and rumours can spread rapidly, impacting public perception and decision-making.

Also, explore the impact of social media

History of Social Media 

Here is a brief timeline on the history of social media from the 90s to now.

Year Social Media Platform USPs
1997
Six Degrees The first true social media platform for users to create profiles and connect with friends.
2002 Friendster Introduced concepts like profile connections and a user’s “social graph.”
2003  Myspace Offered customisable profiles, music sharing capabilities, and a wide range of social interactions for users.
2004 Facebook Mark Zuckerberg and his colleagues create Facebook, initially for Harvard University students. It quickly expands to other universities and eventually becomes available to the public.
2005 YouTube Video sharing platform, now the second-largest search engine on the planet.
2006 Reddit Popularised interest-based groups through subreddits and voting system.
2006 Twitter Introduced microblogging and enabled users to share short messages or “tweets” with followers.
2010 Instagram  Focused on photo-sharing and quickly gaining traction among mobile users, which led to the rise of visual content in social media and finally bought by Meta Inc.
2011 Snapchat Instant messaging app for sharing multimedia content.
2015 Discord Discussion forum around interests.
2016 TikTok Popularised short form content.
2020 BeReal Instant photo-sharing app, popular among Gen Zers

Parting Thoughts

Hopefully, this blog on what’s social media has given you a better understanding on the meaning, types, features, and everything else associated with it.

About the Author
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Syed Aquib Ur Rahman
Assistant Manager

Aquib is a seasoned wordsmith, having penned countless blogs for Indian and international brands. These days, he's all about digital marketing and core management subjects - not to mention his unwavering commitment ... Read Full Bio