Defining Social Media…It’s Complicated
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This chapter deals with the seemingly simple but surprisingly complex task of defining social media. We begin with a discussion of what social media isn’t, working through some of the common and pervasive myths around social media and young people, before moving on to discuss some of the difficulties in offering a clear definition of social media. Given the continuing evolving nature of platforms, including the addition of new ways of interacting, the ever-growing diverse ways of engaging with and through platforms beyond social interaction, and the use of various social features on a wide array of platforms that may not traditionally be considered overly social spaces, we discuss where (if anywhere) the boundaries of social media sit. We then move on to discuss the importance of a platform-specific approach to understanding social media and then finally reflect on data drawn from a series of interviews with young people to discuss how they understand, define, and use social media.
KeywordsSocial media Social networking Digital natives Moral panic Young people
There is no denying the increasingly important and ubiquitous role of the Internet and of social media in the everyday lives of many people today. Social media has quickly become incredibly popular – both important and mundane, widespread and individualised, a source of global political power and a space for sharing GIFs of cats. Social media contains multitudes and is experienced, used, and present in many of our lives in a variety of ways (see Miller 2011; Wang et al. 2015; Anderson and Jiang 2018). In its relatively short existence,1 the Internet has quickly come to serve many broad functions and roles in everyday life, from social interaction and action (boyd 2015), to news (Hermida et al. 2012), shopping (Schivinski and Dabrowski 2016), business (Qualman 2009), politics (Shirky 2011), and many more growing diverse uses (Irwin 2016). Given the seemingly increasing popularity of social media, especially amongst our youth (Lenhart 2015; OFCOM 2019), there is a pressing need to understand exactly what social media is and how young people are using social media in their daily lives to act and interact. This means a need to consider not only the amount of time young people are spending online (a topic discussed in more detail later in this chapter) but also what their experiences are (if indeed these can be considered universal, another topic we’ll discuss later) and how social media may shape their complex social lives (a theme we’ll return to throughout this book).
Though the use of social media is spread amongst all age ranges at an increasing rate (Perrin and Anderson 2019), young people in particular2 access the Internet more frequently at an increasing rate (Lenhart 2015; Anderson and Jiang 2018). This is for a complex range of reasons (Malvini Redden and Way 2017) beyond just the suggestion that they are young and therefore somehow ‘native’ to technology. This idea of ‘digital natives’ in particular is a myth that educational researchers, policy makers, and practitioners must dismantle and a topic that we will return to in detail later in this chapter. Nonetheless, the latest OFCOM (2019) figures do highlight heavy usage by young people, noting that 83% of 12–15-year-olds have their own smartphone, that 69% of 12–15-year-olds have social media accounts, and that 99% of 12–15-year-olds go online for 20.5 hours per week. This suggests that social media is playing a large part in the lives of an increasing majority of young people, even when lower age limits of social media platforms are being potentially flouted (Livingstone and Ólafsson 2018). Indeed the same 2019 OFCOM report suggests 18% of 8–11-year-olds in the UK have a social media profile and 47% have their own device, a statistic that suggests young people have an online presence even when platforms restrict lower age limits. This presence is seemingly significant and pervasive in the lives of young people. Statistics suggest that in the USA, 92% of teens go online daily, with 24% reporting that they are online ‘almost constantly’ (Lenhart 2015). Indeed, Lenhart (2015) notes that the majority of teens access the Internet several times a day at least, visiting an increasingly diverse range of destinations. Only 12% of teens reported accessing the Internet just once a day.
As these spaces broadly are becoming increasingly relied upon in the everyday social lives of young people, the ways in which identity and interactions play out on- and offline must be of crucial interest to researchers, educators, parents, the media, and users and non-users of social media alike. It is worth noting here, however, that much like young people and their use of social media, this growing body of statistical data shows no sign of slowing or abating any time soon, seemingly suggesting that Internet use in the global north appears to be generally strong and pervasive. Whilst these quantitative readings are broadly useful, these sort of statistical barrages of data about young people and social media in the paragraph above lack qualitative depth around the lived experiences of young people on- and offline. Nonetheless these narrow data snippets often form the basis of the discussion around social media, in the public and in the media writ large. This shallow reading of youth and social media becomes the ever-present narrative undercurrent of public discussion and consternations, with the gaps left from this mass data around the actual lived experiences of young people on- and offline seemingly filled with fears, myths, assumptions, and misunderstandings. The ways the public fills in the gaps about what young people are doing online from this unabating mass of statistical data has roots bleeding back to long-held extant fears around youth. This often belies and supersedes the much-needed deeper discussion that is increasingly required to understand the various complex roles that social media plays in the lives of young people, a discussion that is ever-present in digital research (see Livingstone et al. 2018, for example) but which often fails to penetrate the broader discussion, especially in education.
This chapter, and indeed this book in general, aims to move beyond broad statements about young people and social media to instead understand how young people’s experiences of social media, their lives on- and offline, their identities, and their experiences across various digital and non-digital domains result from the complex, ongoing, and continual negotiation of various shifting factors, actors, and technologies. Though exploring and dwelling in this complex mix, this book begins to lay the groundwork for a theoretical framework to understand and map the enmeshing of the various factors that shape youth experiences of social media. This is vital if we are to understand how Internet use is largely effected and shaped by socio-cultural backgrounds and exposures to a variety of discourses and media narratives (see Dyer 2016).
In order to explore beyond these pervasive broad statistics about teens and social media use, this chapter will discuss what social media is and what research tells us about how young people understand and engage with it. First, however, given the propensity of daily stories about young people and social media, it is worth doing some myth-busting and talking clearly about what social media isn’t.
2.2 Dispelling Some Myths and Moral Panics: What Young People Aren’t Doing Online
The same anxieties appear with startling regularity; these involve the immorality of young people, the absence of parental control, the problem of too much free time leading to crime, and the threat which deviant behaviour poses to national identity and labour discipline.
We see these observations from over two decades ago still present today, much as they were when highlighted by Geoff Pearson (1983) who discussed the same attitudes towards young people in the 1930s and 1940s. As with past moral panics, our concerns about young people and social media are shaped in no small part by our collective fears – of youth, of our own mistakes, of our growing irrelevancy, and of our increasing distance from being ‘cool’, none of which are all that unique or new as concerns and fears.
Throughout history we see fears of media and of new technological inventions coded as ways of explaining and justifying broader concerns around issues such as race, youth, gender, and sexuality. These include fears of televisions as ‘idiot boxes’ that are ‘obstructing a moral lifestyle, and impairing mental and physical health’ (Syvertsen 2017, 55); fears of video games causing youth violence (see the largely debunked Anderson and Dill 2000 paper); fear of comic books causing violence (Springhall 1998); fears of flapper dancing causing sexual promiscuity and manly behaviours in young females (see Hall 1922); fears of dungeons and dragons causing Satanism (Lancaster 1994); and more recently fears linking hip hop to inner-city crime as seen in an article in The Times (Mararike et al. 2018) detailing ‘Drill, the “demonic” music linked to rise in youth murders’. The list goes on.
If men learn this [art of writing], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks (Plato, Transl. Hackforth 1973).
The point here being that this is nothing new yet seemingly we refuse to learn from this ongoing fear of youth. This landscape of fear and concern around technologies and youth can often be confusing for parents, teachers, and others concerned with young people, but worryingly can also be truly dangerous in regard to how we treat young people. Nowhere has this been more apparent recently than in the case of the ‘Momo Challenge’ in early 2019, a story which obscured, diverted, and refracted concerns around young people and mental health onto a collectively manifested and exaggerated fictional totemic ‘folk devil’ (reminiscent of Cohen’s  work around moral panics). With origins in online rumours dating back to 2018, the ‘Momo Challenge’ was reportedly a ‘suicide game’ where a sinister-looking bird-faced woman named Momo would appear on children’s phones telling them to complete an escalating series of tasks, culminating in self-harm and suicide. Early reporting in the media linked this to deaths of children in South America, and the stories were met with concern from parents, statements from police forces4 and school boards,5 posts about the craze from celebrities such as Kim Kardashian,6 and a flurry of new stories. Of course, the Momo Challenge was not actually real, but nonetheless the stories spread far and fast. It has even been suggested that, because of this press coverage, Momo was manifested into existence, with the UK safer Internet Centre noting ‘It’s a myth that is perpetuated into being some kind of reality’ (Waterson 2019). To any media scholar, this should remind you instantly of Jean Baudrillard’s (1994) concept of hyperreality in which he posits that fiction and reality are so closely intertwined in modern life that it becomes difficult to separate one from the other.
Whilst concerns parents were seemingly talking to their children about the dangers of a fictional bird-lady on their phones in the immediate aftermath of the Momo Challenge, the underlying concerns from which this story manifested – concerns around social media, young people, and mental health – were left under-discussed. Though there are well-meaning fears that young people are suffering through a mental health crisis driven in no small part by social media, the research is rather clear, highlighting that adolescent well-being is not strongly linked to technology use (Orben and Przybylski 2019). Nonetheless, there has been a great deal of handwringing around the ‘screentime’ debate, with the logic that screentime can correlate somehow to an increase in mental health issues or a lack of ‘proper’ communication (See Turkle 2011). It is worth noting that Orben and Przybylski find in no uncertain tone that, though worthy of academic study, the search for easy answers around screentime is obscuring more nuanced discussion around youth and social media, suggesting ‘that the outsized weight given to digital screen-time in scientific and public discourse might not be merited on the basis of the available evidence’ (Orben and Przybylski 2019: 177).
The blame for these moral panics cannot, of course, be placed solely in the hands of concerned parents, nor with the media. As Ophir et al. (2019) go to some length to point out, key studies that have captured public attention in claiming a link between social media and mental health in young people, such as Twenge et al. (2018) heavily discussed paper, are misleading in their measurements, analyses, and results. As researchers, we should also be careful to understand our role in shaping public narratives.7
the risk for adolescent depression rises when the adolescent avoids positive and constructive daily behaviors (e.g., exercising or interacting with friends online and offline) and when he or she lacks community support or meaning in life (e.g., attending religious services), regardless of new-media screen use.
With this need for a more nuanced discussion of social media in mind, the framework presented in Chap. 6 of this book presents a way to situate online content in the complex and multifaceted lives of young people, rather than treating them as a catch-all category and assuming a one-way relationship between social media use and behaviour. Nonetheless, there are many myths that pervade about young people. One in particular that is present in education stems from an urge to categorise young people as a collective through the ever-present narrative of ‘digital natives’.
You will notice this is the only section in this book in which I discuss or use the term digital natives, despite its popularity amongst educators and despite this book exploring in detail how young people are engaging with social media and digital spaces. There is good reason for this, as laid out here and indeed in this entire book. Originally conceived by Prensky (2001), digital natives refers to the generation of young people born roughly after 1980 who, because they have been exposed to digital technology from birth, have a different approach, fluency, and use of technology than previous generations whom Prensky labels ‘digital immigrants’. The term digital natives has passed somewhat into its public parlance and has quickly been adopted as a way of helping to understand why young people are competent and comfortable with computers.
It is necessary to promote research that grasps that not all digital natives are equal. Each context will have certain norms by which digital nativity is understood and experienced. Dismantling the universal digital native and considering contextualised digital native identities might also help us move away from speaking of the digital native as a necessarily elite power-user of technology.
Indeed, as the above quote highlights, the use of ‘digital natives’ also highlights some of the problems around attitudes towards technology we see in education to date – the idea that exposure is related to competence. Though there is much to be said for discussions of using technology as a pedagogical tool for younger generations (see Morgan 2014, for example), considerations of students and pupils as digital natives can be harmful to approaches to learning for both teachers and pupils. Blanket assumptions of competence by younger generations can be problematic and deter from the need for holistic, critical, and engaged guidance from older generations, which may serve to undermine calls for digital literacy and critical digital citizenship in schools.10 Students have been suggested to lack, for example, search skills to find and evaluate suitable research (Duke and Asher 2012). Using an ‘immigrant/native’ dichotomy in education can lead to ‘structurally embedded de-privileging of the role of the teacher’ (Bayne and Ross 2011, 161–162) undermining their ability to guide and work with students and pupils on, in, and through technology. It is also far too simple to assume older generations lack competence, willing, and ability to utilise technology (Hill et al. 2008) or that they are unable to become ‘native’ (Bayne and Ross 2011). Further, positioning of older generations as digital immigrants can serve to undermine critiques of technology by these users, meaning ‘their dissent can be delegitimised as symptomatic of their ignorance, backwardness or resistance to change’ (Bayne and Ross 2011, 162).
Further to this, it is worth highlighting and emphasising the linguistic flaw and danger in dwelling on an ‘immigrant/native’ divide. As Bayne and Ross (2011, 164) point out, such a rhetoric ‘inevitably evokes complexities and anxieties around migration, integration, and racial and cultural difference in Western society’. Even with a charitable reading of this stretched metaphor of the native pitted against the immigrant as inherently different in their approach to the world, Prensky’s (2001, 2) claims of immigrants as ‘heavily accented, unintelligible foreigners’ should be a warning to any use of this as a concept as a notion of generation assimilation, superiority, or difference.
It is necessary to overcome the physical-virtual dialectic when speaking of digital natives and to consider them as techno-social identities who straddle, like Donna Haraway’s cyborgs, the realms of the physical and the virtual simultaneously.
Whilst there are other myths worth addressing and unpacking around technology and young people, it is through this lens of a need to consider ‘techno-social’ identities when approaching the experiences of young people today that we turn to a consideration of how best to define and understand ‘social media’.
2.3 Understanding ‘Social Media’
Given that social media has become an increasingly ubiquitous (Curran et al. 2016) part of everyday social life for a wide variety of users (Perrin and Anderson 2019), research has been keen to unpack the effects of the many aspects of social media upon our actions and interactions (Ariel and Avidar 2015; Salomon and Brown 2019; Barker and Rodriguez 2019). The subject has attracted a lot of interest from a variety of fields ranging from sociology (Curran et al. 2016; Daniels et al. 2017), to psychology (Seidman 2013), geography (Kitchin 2013), business studies (Safko 2010), and education (Marsh et al. 2016). With this broad scope of approaches, there are a similarly wide variety of approaches towards understanding, considering, and defining social media. This section will therefore detail the scope of this research in regard to social media, discussing the key aspects of social media as they pertain to a focus upon identity performances.
A common task I set my students in the first lecture of every year is to define ‘social media’. This seemingly simple task, to define something so ubiquitous in modern life, becomes quite complex quite quickly as my students realise that they are unsure about where social media begins and ends. The inevitable responses that come at the end of this short group task are either hyper-specific, focusing on one or two aspect such as ‘public posting’ or ‘networking’, or are extremely broad, encompassing all communication online. Some centralise Facebook as ‘default’ social media with variations spinning off from this; others attempt to account for all variations and include such methods of interacting as email, financial transactions, and dating apps. One aspect however that unfailingly is centred in almost all definitions from my students is that social media me is a space for people to interact and post content online.
As Chap. 4 of this book discusses in detail, there is an understandable tendency to centre our understanding of social media around this ‘loud’ and obvious public data that seems to be ostensibly at the heart of ‘social’ media, but in reality our experiences and uses of social media move far beyond just social interaction alone. You only have to be on Facebook for a minute to see some on the variations available on this platform alone. Facebook has groups, advert after advert, videos, news, private messaging, games, and spaces where you can buy and sell goods; the list goes on and changes frequently. Seemingly social platforms are expanding their focus far beyond social interactions alone. It could even be argued that companies such as Facebook and Twitter centre user interaction as the purpose of the platforms but that their interest lies in collecting and producing data about our habits, clicks, and footprints online. As David Beer (2018) rightly points out, this ‘data gaze’ follows users online and offline, restructuring and re-contextualising many aspects of daily life.
In many ways, given the complex and multifaceted nature of these platforms, the term ‘social media’ is somewhat of a misnomer that, at the very least, makes users, observers, audiences, and researchers consider these spaces to be social first. Nonetheless, the term has quickly come into the zeitgeist, seemingly replacing old terms such as ‘web 2.0’ and ‘social networking ‘, making it somewhat hard to discuss the growing mass of unique online experiences covered by spaces as diverse as Grindr and the Daily Mail message board without somehow invoking social media. Indeed, along with ‘traditional’ social media platforms diversifying their offerings into a range of different functions and features beyond user-produced content, we are also seeing other platforms integrate social elements to encourage some form of engagement and interaction, such as the proliferation of comment boards and forums on a wide variety of online spaces. Ostensibly then, ‘traditional’ social media platforms are extending far beyond social interactions, and at the same time a wide variety of diverse website, games, and platforms are integrating social elements into the users experience, making a strict boundary of where social media begins and ends increasingly hard to define.
This complex landscape poses somewhat of a challenge to any researcher looking into social media, as choices have to be made about where to focus one’s attention when trying to capture online experiences in a manner that allows a holistic and accurate representation of online experiences. Questions emerge when approaching research around the topic of social media, including exactly how broad an approach towards social aspects online the researcher needs to take, exactly what social elements the research will consider, and how to deal with features beyond the social aspects of these complex platforms. Beyond the well-known and much researched features and practices associated with Facebook and Twitter (Oz et al. 2018), a growing range of online platforms today purposefully attempt to utilise features that encourage varying forms of social interaction between users (Stroud et al. 2016; Wu and Atkin 2018) around a range of content (boyd 2015; Curran et al. 2016). Features such as comment sections and sharing buttons are, for instance, increasingly common across a wide array of sites and have been noted for their ability to generate social interaction (Toepfl and Piwoni 2015). Research has also looked at other features that can encourage social interaction, including the up-voting of content (Leavitt and Clark 2014; Tarsa 2015) or simple view counters (Lange 2007; Rieder et al. 2018). The ubiquity and commonality of these elements on a wide array of websites potentially blurs the line between dedicated social media platforms and platforms that contain social elements and that foster an interactive environment around the content of that site (Canter 2013).
Given this variety of features that encourage different forms of social interaction, there is limited agreement about what exactly can be considered ‘social media’ and what cannot. Whilst platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are comfortably accepted as social media, other platforms with social elements are nonetheless often excluded from this discussion. This can be seen in choices around how large-scale statistical data is being collected about social media. A study from PEW (Lenhart 2015), for example, collected data on a range of platforms for their expansive survey on Internet usage, but chose to delineate only seven platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Google+ and Vine) as social media platforms. This is despite the fact that in amongst the other platforms were popular platforms with social elements, such as Pinterest, used by 22% of teens (Lenhart 2015); discussion boards, used by one in six teens; and anonymous sites and apps such as Yik Yak and Ask.FM. Indeed, platforms such as Pinterest have been highlighted for their social elements and the range of communities that emerge around the sharing of content (Hall and Zarro 2012; Tekobbe 2013; Guidry et al. 2016). Since 2018, PEW now collect data on nine platforms, removing Tumblr, Google+, and Vine adding YouTube, LinkedIn, Pinterest, WhatsApp, and Reddit (Perrin and Anderson 2019). Again, this contains some odd exclusions, including the removal of Tumblr which continues to be a thriving platform (Byron et al. 2019).
Interestingly, research has found that even if the social element does not serve as the site’s primary purpose, the inclusion of these interactive features can nonetheless foster an attitude of social interaction and even a sense of community (Barnes 2015; Zhou et al. 2016). Manosevitch and Walker (2009, 22), for example, in their study of the comment section of two news websites noted that despite neither site explicitly encouraging it, there were ongoing social conversations in the comment sections of the sites, suggesting ‘that commenters did not simply ‘parachute’ in and leave their opinion. Instead, they engaged with one another as well as the issue under discussion’. This presence of social engagement through comment sections is also confirmed by Canter (2013, 604) who found ‘buoyant levels of interactivity between readers in comment threads’ in UK newspaper comment section and by Barnes (2015, 823) in Australian newspaper comment sections who found that many commenters were ‘actively forming a virtual community, fuelling their own sense of identity through the submission of comments and the dynamic played out through established relationships within that community’. This sense of community and engagement has even been noted in comment sections and platforms that allow anonymity. Coles and West (2016, 47), for example, note ‘the majority of posts are of an interactional nature’ and that ‘online members do not treat each other as being anonymous – even when posters real names and identities are unknown’ (Ibid, 51). This strongly suggests that there is a need to broaden approaches to social interactions online beyond just Facebook and Twitter alone if we are to get a fuller picture of the rich variation of online social interactions.
There is also a need to expand understandings of the activities and purposes of users on more easily identifiable platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter (boyd and Ellison 2008; Kowert et al. 2016). As mentioned earlier, it is increasingly clear to see that these platforms are not exclusively social and focused on peer-to-peer interactions alone, a point that has been being made in research for a decade now (Kwak et al. 2010; Smock et al. 2011). Indeed, these spaces are increasingly offering diverse ways of engaging, with various possibilities for action and interaction (Bucher and Helmond 2018). This makes providing a holistic definition of social media difficult. Many of the traditional criteria that have been used to separate and delineate the core of social media’s essence in the early days of online interaction are being thrown into question by recent developments in platforms. Aspects that were once considered essential in separating social network sites(SNS)11 from other spaces online (see boyd and Ellison 2008 for an early list of core features) are now questioned, with newer platforms which might be considered under the moniker of ‘social networking’ removing the need for dedicated public profiles (Khazaei et al. 2016; Pangrazio 2018) or a dedicated list of connections (Black et al. 2016). Similarly, social platforms have wholeheartedly integrated private messaging (O’Hara et al. 2014; Karapanos et al. 2016), meaning the notion of a separation of public and private social spaces that some research has previously attempted to maintain is becoming increasingly questionable (Korhan and Ersoy 2016; Utz 2015).
Beyond the blurring of social media into a range of other platforms and spaces online, it appears there is also an issue of synecdoche12 in the existing literature dealing with social media. This can be problematic when attempting to consider the nuances of social media as certain aspects may be exclusively foregrounded and used to generalise all social experiences online (Smock et al. 2011). An example of this synecdoche can be seen in use by Hughes et al. (2012), who (understandably for research published in 2012) position Facebook and Twitter as the key platforms online and generalise about the entirety of social media from these two platforms. More recently, Davis (2016, 137) has suggested that ‘social media are interactive, nonanonymous, network-based Internet technologies that allow for the sharing of user-generated content’. Whilst this is a generally accurate description of how some users interact on certain platforms such as Facebook and Twitter (though certainly this is not all a user can and does do on these platforms), this certainly cannot be applied or generalised to all social media. This is especially apparent given the recent resurgence of anonymity in complex ways in social media (Ellison et al. 2016) and the popularity of platforms such as Reddit and Tumblr that do not require the sharing of personal information. In Davis’ case, their earlier work (Davis and Jurgenson 2014) hints at the need for a broader definitions, highlighting that a large number of users use more than one social media platform and defining social media thusly: ‘by social media, we refer to the set of interactive Internet applications which facilitate (collaborative or individual) creation, curation, consumption, and sharing of user-generated content’ (Davis and Jurgenson 2014, 477). This second definition allows for a wider array of social platforms that does not limit aspects such as anonymity (Coles and West 2016).
None of this is to say that Davis’ definition provided above is not a consideration of some of the most important and prevalent aspects of social media, but it is a clear ontological choice to focus on a specific aspects of the platform – in this case the interactivity, the lack of anonymity, and the sharing of user-generated content – over other uses of these complex multi-faceted platforms. Such synecdoche poses problems for what researchers focus upon when they engage with these platforms, which provide more than just avenues for social interactions between users. It appears, given the growing range and variety of social platforms, that not only is there a need to consider an array of platforms when considering social interaction, but there is also a need to pay attention to the particularities of that platform rather than generalising the scope and shape of social interaction online. Indeed, the research documented in this book emerged from an early study where I attempted to do this myself, focusing on Facebook and Twitter alone to attempt to understand social media. I quickly found this to be notably restrictive and a limited way of understanding social media. Instead, it must be noted that ‘social networking’ represent one aspect of social interaction online and that experiences on these platforms are increasingly diverse. It is also apparent, given the increased presence of social features on a range of platforms alongside the diversification of features offered on platforms such as Facebook, that SNSs are increasingly less of a discrete and wholly distinct category, hence the choice to use ‘social media’ as a broader ‘catch-all’ category throughout this book. Whilst traditionally SNSs foreground a rather specific from of social interaction (see Dabbagh et al. 2015), it is clear that today platforms offer far more than social interaction and foregrounding this aspect may only enhance synecdoche.
Of course, this is also true of the term ‘social media’, which seems to similarly foreground social interaction. At its broadest ‘social media’ has to cover a range of complex and overlapping functions across a wide range of spaces, blurring into and out of a variety of other platforms and including functions far beyond social interactions alone. As such, there is no easy answer to the task I set to my student of defining social media. Nonetheless, if I were to proffer a suggested way to conceptualise social media, I would point towards the Ancient Greek concept of an ‘Agora’. Agorae were the social hubs of the Ancient Greek world, literally meaning a ‘gathering place’. They were, ostensibly, marketplaces that served as key locales in Greek athletic, artistic, spiritual, and political life. On the one hand, they were important spaces to be and to be seen; they served as places to socialise, interact, discuss politics, and generally be a part of Ancient Greek life. On the other hand, they served as decidedly commercial spaces. The embedded nature of this dual functionality is still reflected in the Greek language today, and from the word Agora, we get two Greek verbs ἀγοράζω, agorázō, ‘I shop’, and ἀγορεύω, agoreúō, ‘I speak in public’. Modern social media also blurs a market and a social space, producing different variations and iterations on this theme, emphasising some aspect, and minimising others to produce an increasingly hybrid experience for the user. This still misses many aspects of the social media experience however. In this manner, social media is a rather imprecise term to describe these platforms. For the time being, given the progression of the term into public parlance, social media serves as an imprecise, synecdochic, fuzzy, but inescapable category whose centres may be easily located but whose boundaries become rather obfuscated.
One aspect of importance to note about the term social media is its distinction and distance from the use of the term ‘site’. ‘Sites’ are increasingly fraught in digital research, representing a hangover of ‘website’. Social media however is rapidly moving away from the website-only format towards the use of apps and various ‘blackboxed’ interfaces (Light et al. 2018). Statistics suggest that 95% of American teens have or have access to smartphones which they use to access the Internet (Anderson and Jiang 2018). Some of the increasingly popular platforms such as Snapchat and TikTok (Şimşek et al. 2018) are viewed only in app-based form on mobile. Equally, sites like Twitter and Facebook can be reached on a range of different devices. Given the shift to a range of platforms beyond just websites (a trend that looks likely to continue to evolve with the influx of augmented and virtual reality), the need to avoid synecdoche, and the various uses of these platforms beyond networking alone (Smock et al. 2011), I warily choose to make use of social media as a problematic but inescapable term.
Given this position, my research aims to purposefully consider a broad array of online platforms and considers social media at its broadest point – as platforms through which users engage with, through, on, over, and about media, albeit alone, with other users, or with a range of entities both human and non-human. Such a broad approach naturally covers spaces and platforms which may not traditionally have been considered, including emails and video games. However, this broader focus opens many possibilities for a close engagement with a broad array of experiences. Obviously, due to the abundance of easily mineable data from a wide audience, Facebook and Twitter currently attract a lot of attention from researchers, especially in regard to ‘big data’ research. Nonetheless single-platform research and the implications drawn from it do not match the experiences of many users for whom social interaction is happening across a range of platforms (Smith and Anderson 2018). As Carr and Hayes (2015, 49) highlight, a narrow focus ‘could impede theoretical development of social media more broadly’. Increasingly, user contribution and engagement with a range of materials across a range of platforms has allowed for many diverse spaces to build social community, in turn encouraging new forms and models of social interaction that should not be ignored by researchers in favour of larger platforms like Twitter (Kowert et al. 2016). It is clear that with the growth in user interactions across a plethora of diverse platforms, those findings drawn from one social media platform cannot be applied universally (Katz and Crocker 2015; Stroud et al. 2016). As discussed in Chap. 6, because of the possibilities a broader consideration of social media offers for research, a theoretical frame is needed that is capable of moving beyond a reliance upon the structures and affordances of Facebook and Twitter alone. Given this, this chapter will now move on to consider some of the implications of a broader approach towards social media and what this might mean for how we consider social interactions online.
2.4 More than a Feature
Beyond the need to consider a broad range of platforms, there is also a need to consider the specificities of each platform and the unique ways in which they may be used. This is aptly highlighted by Stroud et al. (2016), who note that across 155 functional similar news websites, the use of social features such as social media buttons, hyperlinks, polls, and comments largely differed from one site to the next. They found little support for any ‘interactive convergence’, instead noting ‘many differences in the adoption and use of interactive features based on medium and target’ (Stroud et al. 2016, 339), highlighting that the context of the site plays a large part in how users engage with these features. This suggests that merely noting the presence of specific features when considering social media is not enough to understand how they are being used to socially act and interact, as the same feature may be used in different ways for different effects on different platforms. Such an approach further complicates a clear definition of social media, as the features of these platforms potentially become less important that the culture and environment in which they are placed. This point is echoed by Bucher and Helmond (2018, 251), who note call for platform-specific approaches to social media which ‘emphasize the specificity of platforms as a socio-technological environment that draw different users together and which orchestrate the relations between different platform users’. In this manner, it is apparent that any analysis of social media should look at how features are utilised and used in context, paying attention to the use of features from one site to the next rather than assuming that specific features and elements alone will create and foster similar uses across a range of contexts.
This can be further highlighted by literature that focuses upon cases of ‘trolling’, anti-social, and uncivil behaviour online, which research suggests may be more prevalent in certain contexts, such as sites and platforms that offer anonymity (Coles and West 2016; Massanari 2017). This certainly does not mean that anonymity itself is always utilised for trolling, and it should be noted that, in some contexts, anonymity can in fact be used in a supportive manner (See Dyer 2017). In this manner, research has highlighted that the context in which features are found can shape their use. Rowe (2015), for example, looked at the comment section of the Washington Post which allows users to post anonymously and compared the comments to those left on the Washington Post’s Facebook site where users had to use personal Facebook accounts to leave a comment. Rowe found that the Washington Post website had far more incivility and impoliteness as well as a greater likelihood for purposefully directed hurtful comments than the Facebook page. Similar findings have been found by other researchers (Cho and Acquisti 2013; Hille and Bakker 2014; Van der Nagel and Frith 2015). It appears then that interactive affordances, such as comment sections, are not used in uniform manners. Context, it seems, matters.
rather than being a single phenomenon with a singular purpose of engagement, we found that the selfie category encompasses a range of use and intention. The platforms, subject matter, and audience all impact how users engage with selfies and the reasons for taking them. (Katz and Crocker 2015, 10)
although they [social media platforms] all provide a basis for promoting interaction between users via the Internet, their social utilities, or more specifically their key features and ability to connect users and provide a sense of social connectedness, vary widely. Recognising the unique characteristics of different mediated, social spaces is key to understanding what role these different social services play in our everyday lives, how they are utilized, and what social impact (if any) they may have on users over time. (Kowert et al. 2016, 5)
It is this call for contextualisation that this book therefore aims to provide, not only focusing on a wide range of platforms but also considering the specificities of design within those platforms, as well as providing an attention towards how different socio-culturally situated users experience and navigate these features. Research suggests that even simple differences between platforms may result in different manifestations of identity, different forms of social interaction and action, and changes in how the user negotiates and understands these spaces (Stroud et al. 2016). The approach towards social media when considering identity online therefore needs to be both broad, with attention to the wide variety of social spaces online, and specific, with attention to the designs and experiences of specific platforms.
2.5 How Young People Define Social Media
Whilst we have considered what social media is, it is worth briefly considering more specifically what it represents to young people. Through moving beyond the unhelpfulness of digital natives as a term, we can still broadly consider what existing literature around young people’s interactions online reveal about their understandings of social media and what role social media plays in their social lives and social development. Specific differences have been noted generally in the use of social media by young people, including changes in frequency (Agosto and Abbas 2013) and reasons for engaging with the platforms (Antheunis et al. 2014). Data suggest that young people are vital to the growth of social media (Boulianne 2015; Herring and Kapidzic 2015) and that ‘those ages 18 to 29 have always been the most likely users of social media by a considerable margin’ (Perrin 2015, 4).
However, it is not just the widespread nature of these platforms that is important to the young people, but rather the increasingly important role they play in contemporary social life (Robards 2014), ‘shaping how adults and youth interact with each other in school, at home, and at large’ (Goldman et al. 2008, 185). This role of social media in the lives of young people has been much-discussed, sometimes in slightly hyperbolic fashion but also in a way that highlights the growing importance of social media as a space for young people to develop identities. It has been argued, for example, that social media is now ‘compulsory among groups of young people’ (Hodkinson 2017, 272). Research suggests social media platforms play an increasingly integral role in how young people socialise, interact, and form identities (Wartella et al. 2016; Wood et al. 2016). For example, in their survey of nearly 100 students, Mazzoni and Iannone (2014, 303) suggest that social media forms ‘part of the functional organs that support emerging adults in their ability to connect and to be connected to a social network and to develop and maintain it over time’. Though, as we discuss in Chap. 4, social inequality pervades online spaces, and as highlighted earlier in the discussion around ‘digital natives’, young people’s experiences cannot be so easily generalised, it is nonetheless apparent that social media is playing some role in the social interactions and identity presentations of many young people today. Indeed, social media now serves many purposes in the social lives of young people including enhancing broad socialisation and independence (Vickery 2015), serving as a means of emotional connection (Wood et al. 2016), increasing self-esteem and well-being (Antheunis et al. 2014), increasing a sense of closeness with contacts (Valkenburg and Peter 2007), and decreasing loneliness and improving self-reported adjustment (Yang and Brown 2013).
Given the many important social experience that now have the potential to be filtered through social media, especially at the broadest definition as seen in this chapter, it is important to interrogate how these various platforms are affecting and shaping how young people are presenting themselves and how they are acting and interacting. With this in mind, in my own research with young people, I have attempted to understand how social media, at its broadest definition, is understood and experienced by young people and how identity emerges from the enmeshing of socio-culturally grounded individuals as specifically designed platforms. It was with this broad approach in mind that I asked my participants to define social media for me. As discussed earlier, this is no easy task, but it was nonetheless an important question to ask, not only to understand how young people viewed these sites, but also to ensure that as an interviewer I was not already priming the participants by only asking about, for example, Facebook or Twitter.
Brian: Like, anything that has a forum or has avatars or profiles I consider to be social networking, in one way or another.
Harry: Does that mean you use more than just Twitter and Facebook then?
Brian: Umm. Yeah, I guess it does, I (.) I have a whole bunch of sites I use and post stuff on, but not (1.) not in any regular sense. I do post on a whole bunch of things though. Facebook and Twitter just feel a little bit more (.) overtly social. It’s in your face kinda.
Brian: I use a lot of them, but don’t have an active presence. So things like YouTube, and Vine, and umm (.) I would go on but I would never contribute to them (.)
Harry: So you don’t consider that use of the sites?
Brian: No, because I’m not actively giving to the site. I’m (.) milking the site. I don’t think that, like (.) I would never use YouTube for its intended purpose. Well, I don’t know, I use YouTube to watch videos, I suppose that’s the intended purpose. But I would never put videos on there.
I feel like you have to be more active. Like, I feel like, the same as YouTube, I don’t use YouTube, I’m not a YouTuber, and I’m not a Viner or whatever the equivalent would be, I’m a, a, I watch. I’m a voyeur.
Brian: I’m on, I’m social networking sites on my phone as well, WhatsApp, Grindr, those kind of things as well.
Harry: You don’t consider that social media?
Brian: No, it is, but on a different level. It’s basically texting.
I did have a LiveJournal account for a while, which I had a lot of interaction with the fandom community on there, which is a totally, but thinking about it, a lot of people that I knew through LiveJournal I didn’t have any other contact with, so I guess in some ways that is a social media site.
anything that is completely anonymous I would have thought is not social media, just purely on the basis to me is putting some sort of name, whether it be your real name or not, or some sort of identity, communicating with some sort of identity.
show you how much you’ve played in the last week, and it’ll rank you up against your friends and up against the community as a whole. Like, how many, this is the average amount of hours you’ve spent, or sorry this is the amount of hours you’ve spent, this is the amount of hours your friends have spent, and this is the average amount of hours that the community spent playing it, like the average member of the community has played this game this week for like x amount of hours.
you add your friends, like people you know, or people you like talk to on forums, like steam forums, and play the same games in, like, people that maybe you watch stream stuff or something, or you’ve met online. So it, like, and Steam I always thought is more for meeting up with people that you’d want to play with at the same time.
you don’t really know each other, but because you’re all talking about the same things in the same context, you definitely get a feel of personalities…people will refer back to comment boards from a couple of days ago, like ‘oh yeah, you mentioned last article that your dog was dying, how’s that going?’ or something.
Willow: At the end of the week normally, they’ll do what they call an open thread. Which is ‘here is an article that doesn’t actually say anything, other than comment in the box’, like talk amongst yourselves, basically. And there’s a couple of other sites that do it.
Harry: I often wondered what that was. So, I didn’t realise what it was.
Willow: It’s basically, they just put up, like one a week normally, which is basically like (.) which is what are you doing this weekend, what are you playing this weekend, which is basically just people, just, talk. What are you doing this week, how are you, it’s like, umm, tell us what you’re on about, how has this week gone for you, what have you been up to? It’s like, because as I was saying, even though it’s commenting on an article, if you’re regular enough people sort of set up, maybe not in the same sense of community, but you kind of get to know people. Or get to see people commenting all the time, that people are sort of interested in other people’s lives.
despite the fact that you have no idea of anything, like, I wanna say personal, but I know some really personal stuff about all of them, apart from the fact that I don’t know their names and I don’t know, umm, anything.
like how she feels about the fact that she has to put up with her husband’s mistress, although they’re not having a thing any more, and it’s stuff like that, except I have no idea what her name is, where she lives, how old she is, anything like that. And it’s just odd.
Like games where you play with other people, like online role playing games, you can join groups or teams with their friends or just random people in general and they become friends…You hear of people starting relationships with other people who they’ve met online in video games and stuff. I’ve seen a bunch of discussions on games about literally anything under the sun, from cats and parenting tips and just telling stories.
I think other people use Facebook differently to other things, because on Facebook they only tend to be friends who they’ve actually met, but on Twitter and other ones lots of people follow sort of random people that they don’t know.
I guess they’re all kinda the same, but all other social media feel like (.) community. And if you’re not talking it’s just (.) it’s snooping without being part of that community. I don’t know. It just feels (.) Facebook is different.
I think Twitter and Instagram, I think, they’re a lot more specialised (.) in the way that they are designed, whereas Facebook feels a lot more kind of generic.
2.6 Implications for Educational Researchers, Policy Makers, and Educators
As the data above suggests, social media is notably more complex than it may originally seem and perhaps broader than we might originally consider. This manifests itself in education in a number of crucial ways, for example, there are interesting documented cases of young people using classroom apps as social media, such as Google Docs, which allows users to ‘collaborate’ on a document. Whether we like it or not, social media is already in our classrooms at all levels. Consider it ‘passing notes 2.0’. The findings here suggest that social media can be considered in a notably broad manner. Whilst discussing and considering social media in the classroom, we should show caution when using Facebook as an example of social media. Whilst currently broadly used, it is clear there is more to social media than this platform, and indeed it may be the exception rather than the rule.
Whilst it is readily apparent that Facebook and Twitter are popular and that they are currently an integral aspect of social interaction, this research highlights that a focus on these two platforms alone is not enough to understand the entirety of young peoples’ diverse experiences of social media. There is a need to move beyond a focus on one or two platforms, a need which is all the more apparent given the growing array of platforms through which users can now interact, each offering different ways of expressing identity, consuming and producing content, and socially interacting. As such, not only is there a need to consider a broad approach towards social media, particularly when considering the social media uses of young people (Wartella et al. 2016); it is also clear that there is a need to consider the specificities of these platforms in their own right and to examine the diversity of experiences and uses they can offer, as Willow’s experience with anonymity makes clear.
The broad array of platforms and spaces that need to be considered when approaching social media research is starkly apparent when considering how the participants define social media here. Even within a small sample, there was a noted variety of approaches towards social media, with the participants’ definitions of social media reflecting the diversity of their experiences online. Asking the participants to define social media therefore revealed an important consideration for future research into social media, that the researcher’s conception and understanding of social media may not match the user, and that a consideration of how participants conceive of social media may aid an understanding of their engagements with and through the platforms. This is true in educational policy. There is a clear case to build an understanding of social media not from our assumptions but from the experiences of young people.
It is apparent that there are a variety of approaches towards defining social media and that social media is not understood or used uniformly by users. As such, it seems odd that research should attempt to take a uniform approach towards social media when collecting data by focusing on experiences on one or two popular, but potentially atypical platforms. Doing so risks prioritising a certain approach over other equally legitimate understandings of social media. This research suggests therefore that a similar approach, placing the definition and scope of social media in the hands of participants, should be taken by future research in order to understand what these spaces mean to the participants. Asking the participants to define social media allowed for a deeper consideration of what social media was for the participants and helped in an understanding of how they conceived of these spaces. As Lefebvre (1991) notes, understanding how social spaces are conceived of by the users of that space can help better reveal and unpack the practises enacted within those spaces. This can be essential for classroom approaches to social media also. Rather than an educational response which assumes usage, we can begin to understand the lived experiences of young people in a more realistic manner.
As this chapter makes readily apparent, understanding and defining social media is somewhat of a complex task, especially as the boundaries of terms such as ‘social media’ can obscure the manner in which these platforms offer experiences far beyond social interaction alone and the manner in which a wide array of spaces online now offer ways of interacting with a range of entities. As the research above highlights, the job of defining social media perhaps is not a task for the researcher, but crucially a task for the participants if we are to better understand the broad array of social experiences present online.
The birth of the Internet is, like many aspects of digital history, nebulous. Some trace it to Leonard Kleinrock’s work in packet networking in the 1960s with the Advanced Research Projects Agency (Ruthfield 1995). Others credit Tim Berners-Lee’s work at CERN in the 1980s (Couldry 2012) with the first ‘website’ launching in 1990 (still live at http://info.cern.ch/). Some place it as early as the 1950s with the emergence of WANs (wide-area networks) and other networks like the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (Kim 2005), or to 1962 with J.C.R Licklider’s work at MIT on the ‘Galactic Network’ (Leiner et al. 2009).
For the purpose of this book, we’ll be focusing on the internet from roughly around 2000 onwards, when there appears to have been a shift away from the Internet as a little used communication medium amongst those in the know to a heavily utilised method of mass communication and interaction. In 1993, only 1% of the information sent through two-way telecommunication networks was via the Internet. By 2000 this figure was 51%, and by 2007, it was placed at more than 97% of all information sent (Hilbert and Lopez 2011).
This signifies a massive shift in the last 20 years towards mass communication via the Internet, followed by capitalist investment in infrastructure across a number of industries, such as the introduction of broadband and the huge boom in educational technology (themes that we will return to in Chap. 3).
For a brilliant achieve of newspaper articles documenting fears of technology from horseless carriages and bicycles to headphones and radios, I would encourage you to explore the pessimists archive at https://pessimists.co/archive/.
It should be noted that Twenge seems rather undeterred by this and has continued to explore links between low well-being and frequent social media use (see Twenge 2019).
For more information about digital divides, see Chap. 4 where social inequality online is discussed at length.
See Chap. 7 for a discussion of digital literacy in education and the need to teach criticality over compliance.
boyd and Ellison (2008, 211) make specific use of social ‘network’ site (SNS) rather than social ‘networking’ site, noting that ‘what makes social network sites unique is not that they allow individuals to meet strangers, but rather that they enable users to articulate and make visible their social networks’.
Synecdoche refers to the use of a part to refer to the whole or vice versa, for example, the use of ‘Hoover’ to refer to all vacuum cleaners or the phrase ‘boots on the ground’ to refer to military troops.
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