Social Media in a Nutshell – Part 1

From product reviews on to entries on “open-source” encyclopedias, more and more people are helping create the new Internet. User-generated content material produced and posted by the general public is the hallmark of the new “social media,” (also known as Web 2.0), the Internet’s latest evolutionary development.

Unlike the first wave of websites, which offer one-way communication, social media sites invite the public to participate. Social networking site, Facebook, for example, helps people keep up with friends and colleagues. YouTube provides a platform for people to share their videos. Other sites, most notably Wikipedia and Google Earth, invite people to share their knowledge and expertise. News aggregators and social bookmark sites like Digg, and Delicious help people find, share, and discuss internet content important to them.

The common denominator among all these sites is that the content and the discussion all come from reader initiative.

The mainstream media has also caught on to the phenomenon. Established websites, including the New York Times, have begun to channel user input by opening their content to reader comments, linking to blogs that post on subjects related to their articles, and even sending out updates through social media platforms like Twitter.

The following is the first of a seven-part series reviewing different types of social media platforms. The series is designed to help people participate confidently in social media platforms that appeal to them. This introduction examines the phenomenon in general while each subsequent part will focus on one category of social media.

What is Social Media?

In the most basic sense, the term social media refers to the new wave of Internet-based communication tools such as blogs, social networks, and news aggregators (the different categories will be explained below). These sites allow users to post content, communicate with one another, and build online communities based on common goals and interests.

In practice, however, social media is emerging as the collective voice of the people on the Internet. It empowers citizen activists to launch grassroots campaigns that bring results. Because social media users communicate primarily with other users on a large scale, a successful campaign can engage tens or even hundreds of thousands of people.

One recent example was a campaign launched by one mother against pharmaceutical giant, Motrin. The mother was disappointed by an advertisement from the company that appeared to denigrate mothers who use baby slings. The mother posted a short note on the popular micro-blogging service, Twitter, expressing her views on the ad and urging other mothers to speak out. Within hours, the “Motrin Moms” movement was born. Countless mothers began posting negative messages about Motrin on blogs and message boards. Some even created response videos and posted them on YouTube. Motrin was forced to pull the ad and apologize.

There are numerous other examples of similar phenomenon. However, the Motrin Moms campaign demonstrates both the power of social media and its “social” nature. Mothers who joined the campaign communicated primarily through their personal social media networks, creating a “groundswell” of bad publicity around Motrin’s ad. The campaign also highlights the “conversational” aspect of social media. The campaign was a classic word-of-mouth effort that engaged people through their trusted relationships.

Types of Social Media Sites

Just as there are different types of websites on the Internet, there are also different styles of social media platforms. All of them, however, empower users to express themselves on a scale that would have been impossible just ten years earlier.

Social media sites fall into six main categories:

1. Social Networks – These sites include Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn. Social networks help people connect to their real-life friends and make new contacts on the Internet. They can share pictures of their grandchildren, post articles of particular interest, and even send out copies of their resumes to potential employers.

2. News Aggregators – Sites such as Digg and Reddit allow users to post content they find on the Internet and let readers vote on the content they like best. The most popular items are elevated to the sites’ front pages, where they can receive massive exposure. News aggregators allow people direct attention to news items that may under-reported in the mainstream press.

3. Blogs and Micro-blogs – The “blogosphere” currently includes millions of personal blogs as well as those written by groups, corporations, and non-profit organizations. Starting a blog is an easy way to join the online conversation. For those who prefer a more concise message, Twitter, a micro-blog that has exploded in popularity, limits all posts to just 140 characters enough for about two short sentences.

4. Social Bookmarks – Sites such as Delicious and StumbleUpon function much like the “favorites” or “bookmarks” features on personal computers. The difference, however, is that the selected items are shared publicly. Social bookmarking also allows people to “tag” content writing small notes the describe the article to help other people find it later.

5. Knowledge Sharing – These sites range widely from Wikipedia, an open-source encyclopedia that anyone can edit, to Yahoo Answers, which allows people to post questions and for others to offer answers. In between, there are numerous sites that allow people to post reviews of consumer products and services. In addition, there are numerous collaborative projects, such as Google Earth, which seek contributions from people with particular knowledge.

6. Photo and Video Sharing – These include sites such as YouTube and Flickr, which allow people to post their videos or photos on the Internet for all to see. Photo and video sharing sites often make it easy to distribute the content, allowing particularly interesting photos or videos to be seen by large numbers of people. They also make it easy for families to share their special moments with members that live far away.

Future installments of this series will focus on the social dynamics behind each of the categories, including tips on getting started and ways different platforms can be used to promote a message.

Shifting Goals – From Winning Arguments to Creating Advocates
align=justify>By placing the general public in the primary role of content creator, social media sites are inverting the structure of traditional media. Instead of placing professionals such as writers and editors at the top, social media sites eliminate the hierarchy, giving a more-or-less equal voice to all participants of a given platform.

This non-hierarchical structure is also changing the shape of public debate. Very often, the number of people expressing a message plays a critical role in helping the message prevail. In the case of the Motrin Moms, the woman who started the campaign did not write an op-ed in the New York Times; she used a social media platform with the hope that her message would be spread by others. The sheer number of people complaining about the company across the Internet forced Motrin to address the issue.

In the same way, all activists should look for ways to create a groundswell of support for their causes.  It is also critical to create as many advocates as possible. As a message moves through different social networks, it will affect the widest possible range of people.

Getting Started

The best way to become acquainted with social media is to begin exploring different platforms. An easy way to start is by joining HonestReporting’s existing networks.

Start by signing up to Facebook and becoming a fan of HonestReporting’s brand new Facebook page.  Then join our networks on StumbleUpon and Digg and follow our posts on Twitter. Also see our videos on YouTube.

You can also download our free Internet Activism Guide by clicking here.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the social media series coming soon.