On December 9, 2010, Forbes ran an article tracing the origins of the term “social media,” finding that a handful of web pioneers lay claim to coining the phrase. Although a variety of sporadic uses can be found beginning as early as 1994, a reasoned argument can be made that the term was officially adopted in 1999 when Tina Sharkey, a former executive at iVillage and AOL, was able to register the domain name “SocialMedia.com” for $9.95. In April 2011 the SocialMedia.com website was sold for $3 million, demonstrating in part the amazing growth of this field during the intervening years.
Generally speaking, “social media” refers to a web-based platform through which the general public can create and discuss the information it contains, in contrast to websites that retain exclusive control over the content being published and simply display it for consumption by its users. More specifically, true social media sites seem to have three defining characteristics: (1) the information being posted is not directed at anyone in particular; (2) the information being posted can be edited and/or discussed by all who see it; and (3) the information posted includes an easy way to share it with people not included within the scope of the original post.
In this author’s view, social media has grown so quickly and generated so much excitement because it offers two dynamics that have not been present in the Internet environment prior to the evolution of sites such as Facebook and Twitter. First, social media websites allow us to send to a core network of people random and trivial messages that might seem odd or inappropriate if sent in another fashion. Consider, for example, a message such as “I’m spending the afternoon working on my new social media article.” If sent to my list of Outlook contacts as an e-mail, this message would have an intrusive, time-wasting impression; it appears to be useless information sent to already overcrowded e-mail in-boxes. However, I can send that same message (even directed to the same set of Outlook contacts) by simply posting it on a social media site such as Facebook. When I do this, the message subtly drifts through my contacts’ Facebook newsfeed, producing an unobtrusive and informative effect. As a result, I may even receive helpful feedback such as “Look forward to reading it!” or “Check out this link” [followed by a nifty reference for my article]. This sort of feedback would not be the likely outcome of a mass e-mail; it is a unique phenomenon that we tend to see only in social media environments.
The second dynamic that seems to fuel public excitement about social media is the very powerful concept of “virality.” Facebook defines virality as “the percentage of people who have created a story from a post out of the total number of unique people who have seen it.” For example, assume I post a photograph on my Facebook page, and it is seen by 10,000 unique individuals. Assume further that 1,000 of these individuals cause a follow-up story to be created (which might happen if any of them clicks “like,” comments on the photograph, or shares it to their own page or profile). In this example, the photograph will have achieved a virality of 10 percent. Virality is a critical concept in social media because it is how information rapidly—and often uncontrollably—propagates across the Internet.
Virally spreading social media posts can lead to significant financial gain (as well as devastating reputational harm). Studies have shown that each fan of a Facebook page is worth somewhere between $3.60 and $136.38. Facebook page fans are generated primarily through the virality of its posts. That is, the activity of one fan on a Facebook page is easily displayed to all the other people with whom that fan is connected on the site. Many of that fan’s connections are often motivated to look at the content he or she interacted with, share it further, and even join the page on which it was first posted. Thus, the core goal of a Facebook page administrator is to understand what causes virality and orient his or her postings to increase the chances of this happening.
How to Learn Social Media
There are two golden rules of using social media. First, never write anything onto a social media website that would cause harm if it mistakenly became available for the world to see. Second, for each and every action you take on a social media website, have a clear understanding about who can see it before you take the action.
It is this author’s opinion that social media competency cannot be achieved through reading about it alone. To fully understand social media and become proficient in its use, one must actively use it. For those readers who are new to the idea and may yet feel uncomfortable participating, I strongly recommend forming small groups of similarly situated friends, like a book club, and actually running experiments. For example, if you and two friends each open a Facebook account and become friends, your group will have the ability to see how each of your online activities actually looks to other users. Try meeting on a regular basis to adjust the site’s privacy settings to see the effect on your profile posts, comments, likes, and shares. If you do this enough, you will gain an intuitive sense of how the online community views your social media actions, and you will begin to feel comfortable using social media as the communication tool and news aggregator it is intended to be.
The balance of this article provides a general overview of the three major social media websites and the functionality one must master to become proficient. If you understand these basic guidelines and run the above-described experiments, your comfort level with social media will grow, and you can begin using it to stay connected with friends and family, stay current on news and CLE, and even provide valuable information of your own to business partners and clients.
Why you need it. You need to use Facebook because everyone else is using it. Facebook is far and away the largest social media site in the world, and it is quickly becoming the main repository of information and personal connections.
What it does. Facebook allows you to send and receive text updates up to approximately 60,000 characters long, together with photographs, “notes” (which are longer units of information, such as an article or story), and links to other websites. Individuals create a “profile,” which is used to store and display all the posts they have made in chronological order. Businesses create a “page,” which is used to send information about their products and services to consumers who choose to become a fan of the page.
Protecting privacy. Facebook users control the distribution of their online posts by creating lists. Lists are found on the left side of the home page after login. Users can create custom lists to better target the audience of specific posts. When doing this, your custom lists should be used in an exclusionary fashion; in other words, set up your posts so they are published to all friends, and then add one or more lists to the exception box (every post you make includes a button where this configuration can be easily adjusted). For example, assume you create a list called “Everyone” to which you have added all your friends. A post made to all your friends with an exception for the “Everyone” list should not be seen by anyone (because everyone is listed as the exception). You can then broaden the scope of the post by removing some or all of your friends from the exception list. By using lists in this exclusionary manner, you can limit the audience for each post without displaying the specific names of people in the audience.
Why you need it. Twitter is a wonderful news aggregator that you can customize by choosing which Twitter users to follow. Even if you never post anything on Twitter, you are likely to find it valuable simply because it can be used as a one-stop-shop for all your current events (and even legal CLE). Furthermore, iPad users can take advantage of a free application called Flipboard that turns the Twitter newsfeed into a full-color, personalized magazine that is easy to navigate.
What it does. Twitter users send 140-character messages known as “tweets.” Because tweets can be posted easily using simple cell phones, Twitter has long been recognized as a likely place where major news events are likely to break first. For example, the first reports of Osama bin Laden’s death and the crash of US Airways Flight 1549 were made through Twitter. For the same reason, Twitter was a major tool used to organize citizens during the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. The historical significance of Twitter was officially recognized when the Library of Congress acquired the entire archive of all public tweets for digital archive.
Protecting privacy. Twitter accounts contain a privacy setting to require your approval prior to any other user becoming one of your “followers.” When you select this option, your tweets are nonpublic and nonsearchable. Most Twitter posters avoid this option because the point is to gain as many followers as possible; nevertheless, if your intent is merely to use the service as a news aggregator, this options seems very sensible. Note also that Twitter provides users with the ability to send private direct messages. Be cautious about doing this, however, because either party to the message can delete it for both users (thus, like most social media services, this is not a good tool for professional communication).
Why you need it. LinkedIn is the core social media site for professional and business connections. As of September 30, 2011, the site reported a growth rate in excess of two new professionals per second, with more than 135 million total members around the world. Because of its widespread use in the business community, LinkedIn is an excellent way to network and provide detailed information about your skills and availability.
What it does. The basic engine of LinkedIn is a unique system of creating and viewing business contacts. Users are encouraged to identify their relationship with potential contacts by demonstrating a previous social or professional relationship. Additionally, users have the ability to see the degree of connection between themselves and other potential contacts. For example, LinkedIn will show people who are connections of your own contacts (referred to as second-degree connections) as well as the connections maintained by the connections of your own contacts (referred to as third-degree connections). In this way, LinkedIn provides a new and interesting way to view how your business community is interrelated. The service also allows employers and job seekers to interact and gives each user an easy way to update business contacts related to certain events such as travel, books being read, and articles that have been published.
Protecting privacy. Every LinkedIn account has a “privacy controls” module in which you can turn off your activity broadcasts, select who can see your activity feed, select what others see when you view their profile, and choose to show or hide your connections. The privacy settings are located beneath your name at the top right of every page in the LinkedIn site.
As a result of these unique dynamics of communication and connection, social media websites have become the fundamental means of sharing and receiving information. At the end of 2011, Facebook reported 845 million monthly active users, 483 million of whom use the site every day. All major news and commentary publications use social media websites as a core means of distributing their information, and so, too, do our friends and loved ones. In essence, social media websites have become the most efficient and comprehensive means of staying current with respect to the broad range of global, national, local, and social events, and thus social media competency is clearly fundamental to our professional skill set.