Social media is the buzz phrase of the web today, however, ask any two web professionals what “social media” actually is and you will get two differing answers. In fact, social media means different things to different people including the most important group of all, the users.
Users are bringing change to the web because of how their web surfing habits are evolving. This is leading to new and creative ways to satisfy the changing demands for how information and content is searched and used.
Social Media Defined
The World Wide Web was conceived as a medium for information exchange between users, however, it is only with the advent of Social Media innovations this has become reality for ordinary users as individuals and collectives including businesses. Social Media is not defined by “What It Is” but more by “What It Does” – it is the enablement of any user to share information whether uploading it to the web for others or viewing and downloading content for their own use.
This said we’ll be looking at what different Social Media sites do in practice so you can grasp the whole concept.
The currency of the internet is sharing content and this includes the written word but also sharing photos and images, video recordings and audio tracks. Think diary entry, holiday snaps, favorite music and favorite TV show or movie though users can now make and share their own content and not just commercially made and distributed music and film.
Web 2.0 is used synonymously with Social Media and again opinions differ very widely as to what it means. Web 1.0 generally refers to the underlying technology which allows for the internet to work and function at a basic level, HTML for instance, the code for making web pages. Web 2.0 refers to tools and developments which refer less to technical backroom “stuff” and more to the application by users of sites themselves. This is particularly true when it comes to how users are putting the World Wide Web to their own uses to share information and interact with one another as well as the whole internet community.
Social Media Sites in Action
We’re now going to cover some of the broad subdivisions within Social Media and give you practical examples of each.
Think of a diary with entries written by the owner each day and now transfer this to your computer screen – the term “blog” is actually a contraction of the phrase, “web log”. Users write and upload their entries together with links other web pages and as the practice has developed so has the ability to upload and post images, audio and video for others to view.
A blog has the capability to reach every user on the internet; blogging has empowered users with the ability to reach very large numbers of people around the world and has been adopted by many organizations and businesses as well as a means to get their message out to market.
Popular blogging platforms include WordPress and Blogger though many websites also have their own integrated blog attached.
The “Blogosphere’ refers to the blogging community of bloggers and readers as well as the interconnected blogs themselves and has spawned a need for specialized search facilities such as Technorati, to help users find information much as search engines such as Google and Yahoo! do.
A development of the blog is the VLog (contraction of Video log) which is simply the uploading of a spoken and video recorded entry to the blog.
Microblogging enables multimedia communication using very brief posts similar to a blog but in a very truncated fashion. The most popular service is Twitter which has come to dominate this space and is a form of instant messaging but to a much wider audience than simply one-on-one or conference calling. Picture a room full of people talking and you have the ability to dip in and out of those conversations at will as well as initiating new conversations or making an announcement which will be picked up by others if they so wish.
Online Social Networking
Currently dominating user time on the internet and challenging the search engines hold on user access to information. Online social networking provides for a virtual replication of existing real-world social networks in cyberspace with the added advantages of recovering lost connections due to distance and time as maintaining social relationships in close to real-time no matter the distance separating users – and for the most part it is free.
Additionally, online social networks provide the ability to instantly share content with an individual, a group or the public; content can be user generated images, photographs, video and written thoughts or they can share common interests in a product, a personality, a cause or a commercially produced piece of content. Other tools are typically provided such as messaging and instant chat as well as online games and recreational diversions.
Online social networks are fluid and dynamic and the space is dominated by large sites such as MySpace and Facebook though there are many other networks focusing on specific interest groups such as lifestyle, social activity or hobby. LinkedIn is the most successful specialist online network serving the business user for maintaining and developing professional networks. Online social networks also appeal to all age ranges and demographics though regional tastes differ; MySpace dominates the US, Facebook in Europe and Orkut in Brazil and India while older users tend to favor Facebook and younger users MySpace.
The demand for sharing images, music and video has led to the creation of numerous sites to satisfy it; there are several major sites operating in this space including:
- Flickr – a photo sharing site acting as an online photo album where images can be stockpiled for use elsewhere on the web as well as allowing sharing; and
- Hulu – a site where TV shows and movies are available at no cost to the viewer.
A wiki is a compilation of web pages created and modified by the users themselves and frequently used for collaborative projects where teams of users create a resource both for their own communities as well as the world at large. By far the most popular wiki is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia created by users and groups but wikis are also used as intranets by businesses and groups pooling knowledge and bringing different skill sets and member experiences to bear on the subject matter.
Web Page Publishers
Establishing a web site carries with it certain barriers for ordinary users wishing to publish content to the web – they must buy and register a domain name and then create and publish the web pages – all of which costs time and money.
Web page publishers provide an easy and free means of creating your own web pages using their own platform for you to operate within. You can create text, upload images and video which will have a web address and link the page and items it contains (including links from other web pages) to anywhere else the user wishes. This creates a huge database of user generated content which can be searched and accessed by other users or restricted to a private group.
Examples of these sites include Squidoo, Xanga and Zimbio.
Social Bookmarking and Social News
Social bookmarking is a method of noting web pages which are of interest to a user and then sharing this “tag” with other users; other interested users can then navigate to the web page and also make their own assessment of whether the page is of interest or not – a form of voting or a web page popularity contest.
There are two major sites in this space; Del.icio.us (Delicious) and StumbleUpon though there are numerous others aimed at differing interest groups.
A similar system is used by Digg and Reddit for news items emerging on the web with users voting an item up or down; the more votes a piece receives, the higher it is ranked thus increasing the exposure and opportunity to receive even more votes until it is overtaken by other, more newsworthy entries as determined by the user community casting votes in near real-time.
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