What is social media?

I was at a meeting last week whose focus was on social media. It quickly became clear that there were two kinds of interests. One group wanted to build high-level systems that would revolutionize business and government (somehow) leveraging social media; another group were building or wanted to build tools that would provide some kind of meta-view of social media content and activity.

The topic that was missing from all of the discussion was what social media was, and why it is the way it is; and so I came away feeling like the entire discussion, and quite a lot of work, was dancing on clouds. There seem to be a number of things that “everybody knows” about social media, but for which there seems to be little or no evidence. The Arab Spring was driven by social media! Well, maybe, but (a) was it and how much, (b) which parts were important and which were irrelevant?

It seems helpful to divide social media into three categories:

1.  Media that is essentially public access publishing or public access (micro)blogging. Although sites that provide this kind of functionality are often considered “social” there is almost nothing social about them — yes, the audience for posts can be restricted to a particular group, but that’s always been true of any publication. There is an interesting question lurking here though: what are the reasons why individuals read such posts? What kind of bond does it imply between the reader and the author? (Cynically, why would I care what even my closest friend had for breakfast?)

2. Media that start as public access publishing, but where the conversation built on an initial post is more important or interesting than the initial post itself — in other words, there’s something emergent in the conversation that transcends what any of the participants would have said ab initio. This is a kind of social knowledge or opinion construction, and there are lots of interesting questions about who participates, what their roles are, and how the content and tone are affected by the interactions. This is, of course, not a new phenomenon but what’s new is the scope and the detail of what’s recorded, allowing answers to be worked out in ways that were impractical or too expensive before.

3. Media in which explicit relational links are created between one person and another. This is the real heart of social media. Relational links between a pair of people have, of course, always existed, but they could only be constructed in a small number of ways and were (almost always) limited by geography.

The emergent structure of these links is a really interesting artifact that deserves study and from which we will probably learn a lot about what it means to be human in a global society. What does it mean when one person “friends” another? This is one question for which simple answers tend to be assumed, but even a brief consideration of A’s Facebook friends and the rest of A’s relationships in the real world quickly shows that there’s a complex connection between the two sets (and it depends heavily on characteristics of A).

One thing that quickly becomes clear when these questions are addressed computationally is that we aren’t going to get far until relationship links are typed. It’s fairly easy to look at each relationship and give it a numerical weight that reflects (say) closeness — but it’s still true that different kinds of relationships behave differently, and need to be modelled differently to understand them. (Social media sites should also implement this typing — not every piece of data should flow down every link of A’s social network.)

The fundamental question in a world where one person can create a visible relationship, is what does this mean — for the person creating it, for the person at the other end of the relationship, and for the emergent graph structure that a collection of these individual relationships creates. Good, solid answers to this question would be a foundation on which much more useful applications could be built.

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