What is Social Media?

9262885_mlThere’s a lot more to social media than the basic OED definition of “websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking.” That is the basic function that we can expect from any site professing to be a social media platform, and it echoes the popular opinion expressed by Salford City Council that “social media is a new way to communicate and share information amongst friends, family, and colleagues online, as well as meeting people with similar interests.”

However, there are many different shades of social media, so it can be helpful to delve a little further. The term covers so many platforms that it can seem difficult to pin down a satisfactory definition: The BBC WebWise series perhaps sums it up best, saying that social media can ultimately be “whatever you want”! As a student, you may well want to consider what social media can do for you when it comes to building a professional profile, gaining work experience, and developing your career path, both during and after your time at university.

In their guide to social media, the Research Information Network identifies three key subcategories that belong under the social media bracket: communication, collaboration and multimedia. Each of these categories comes with subcategories of its own, as well as specific features, uses and benefits that are worth exploring further.

  • Communication: Some social media platforms are all about communicating your thoughts, feelings and creative work with friends and followers. Blogging platforms like WordPress are primarily communication tools. On their Internet 101, Affilorama suggest that blogs generally “focus on the day to day life of the individual or that individual’s perspective of current events. Therefore personal blogs often overlap with subject-related blogs.” Microblogging platforms, like Twitter, have a similar function on a much smaller scale, used for “short updates that are pushed out to anyone subscribed to receive the updates.” Social Networking sites are also put under the category of communication. These allow users to share content with smaller audiences made up of their friends, peers or people with similar interests and hobbies.
  • Collaboration: The Research Information Network notes that compared to traditional collaboration tools, “social media [tools] open up new forms of collaboration that are not so bounded by time, place and access to funding.” This includes conferencing platforms, like Skype; social news sites, like Reddit, where news articles are ranked by reader popularity; and social documents such as google docs, which enable teams to collaborate on one piece of work.
  • Multimedia: Multimedia social networking sites are all those that allow for the sharing of non-text based products. This often refers to platforms which allow users to upload pictures or videos, as Flickr and YouTube do. However, it can also be used to discuss more ambitious media sharing, like in the instance of the virtual worlds conjured up on sites like Second Life and World of Warcraft.

Here on Social Media Skills for Students we”ll focus on how social media can assist higher education students, which means we will primarily consider the most popular and the most useful platforms for students. A lot of what we choose to discuss will come under the category of communication, as we are aiming to help you express you ideas, skills and experiences to wider audiences, including potential employers.

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