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What Is Social Media?

Social media is the overarching term which describes technology-based communication tools which utilize computers and computer networks to allow users to publish and share media in a variety of forms with family, friends, acquaintances, and business associates, or even the World wide network of users as a whole.

Social media is somewhat different than communication and sharing that occurs through forums, chat rooms, and email. Social media platforms are usually characterized by user generated content, and the use of web 2.0 technology (enabling interactive and constantly updating data stream).

In contrast with traditional media where there is a single distributor of content and a multitude of receivers/consumers, social media enables the transmission of information from many sources to a multitude of receivers--a dialogic transmission system.

Types of Social Media Platforms

Social media, and social media platforms come in many flavors, and are generally defined by the type of communication they allow or are designed to facilitate the best.

Platform Category DescriptionSocial Media Platform Examples
Picture sharingPicture sharing sites or applications (better known as apps) are designed to make the process of taking, modifying, and sharing images easier. They provide a variety of tools for both the amateur to professional, Instagram, Picasa, Snapchat
BloggingBlogging is, by now, a familiar term to most, as it has become very common for people to publish blogs. But in basic terms, blogging is the process of publishing content in a format reminiscent of a journal, though it continues to become less like a journal and more like an online magazine.WordPress, TypePad, Movable Type, Blogger
MicrobloggingMicroblogging may sound like an obscure term, but the activity is highly familiar to almost everyone. Posting on platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter which are designed for short-form text and image publication are called microblogging sites.Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, Facebook, Weibo
Social Bookmarking, Discussion, and NewsSocial bookmarking sites are designed to allow users to submit self-sourced articles, images, or other types of content for consumption to the community. The submissions generally allow for users of the community to comment on the submission and vote (up or down) which determines its popularity, and its ranking within the bookmarking platform.Stumbleupon, Reddit, Digg, NewsVine, Flipboard
Questions & AnswersQuestion and answer platforms are exactly as the name describes: people submit questions about any topic, and members of the community who are knowledgeable in that specific topic-area, answer the questions.Quora, Yahoo! Answers,
Social ShoppingSocial shopping is the term used to describe either shopping platforms which allow users to combine purchasing power to get a discount on products or service, or platforms where the shopping experience is more social through the integration of comments and ratings.Groupon, Woot
Business NetworkingSimilar to social networking sites, business networking sites provide users the tools, and platform to connect, share, and offer products or service through organic interactions as well as advertising opportunities.LinkedIn, plaxo, kaboodle
Social NetworksSocial networks, in the most traditional sense, are designed to allow people to connect to one another, and share thoughts, ideas, pictures and other content, as well as keep in touch with friends and family.Facebook, Myspace
Location Sharing & Social ReviewsLocation sharing and review platforms offers customers to share their location when visiting local businesses, and to share their suggestions, reviews, and commentary on business establishments that they patronize. The platforms also allow for social connections with friends as well as strangers.foursquare, yelp, City Search
Social AppsSocial networking apps come a variety of incarnations and include picture sharing, microblogging, location sharing and any other social activity that is possible to do online or through a smartphone.Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat
Video & Live StreamingVideo and live streaming social apps allow users to either upload videos or live stream their activities. The platforms allow for fans and followers to not only view the videos but to also comment, and interact with other users and the creator of the videos.YouTube, Vimeo, metacafe, Periscope
Music & EntertainmentMusic & Entertainment social media platforms mainly provide a service for a fee (or advertisements), but at the same time allow for social interactions of their users both with the community and with the content being offered through reviews, commentary.Pandora, Netflix, Hulu
Even though some of these platforms boast over a billion active users, each serves a specialized niche. It is also important to note that many new social networks and social media platforms are forming around smart phone applications instead of the traditional website-driven social platform.

If you have questions about the definition of any of the types of platform, please check our comprehensive glossary.

Quality, Trustworthiness, and Social Impact of Social Media

It is worth noting that due to the nature of social media, where anyone with access to the Internet is able to contribute to the conversation, it is inevitable that not all content is properly researched, vetted, and well thought out. This allows for low quality, and, increasingly, false information to gain momentum and reach millions of people in a matter of hours or even minutes. This of course can be used in a variety of ends for nefarious goals.

Aside form the concern about quality and trustworthiness of the content, some researchers contend that the use of social media can negatively impact the lives of millions by allowing the spread of a virtual 'green grass' syndrome.