Journalism, and society as a whole, have undergone a revolution since ever wider access to the internet began to spread in the 1990s.
One of the most important changes this has enabled is the invention of social media. Since the creation of Facebook in 2004, if not earlier, social media has in a comparatively short time become an integral part of people’s daily life, both during work and leisure time.
The core characteristic of social media is that it is social: it is based on interaction between users and user-generated content.
Social media is a term under which various and very different online services can be grouped. All in all, it is difficult to precisely define it. These services do, however, have many things in common.
First of all, the core characteristic of social media is that it is social: it is based on interaction between users and user-generated content. The users of social media can be individuals, communities, corporations and organisations. Users can communicate with each other, share content, comment on things published by each other, form groups or filter for specific content.
In addition to communicating with actual friends, networking and exchanging ideas is perhaps increasingly happening between previously otherwise unknown people. The possibilities are virtually endless.
Networking and exchanging ideas is perhaps increasingly happening between previously otherwise unknown people.
Another characteristic that social media services have in common can be found in media technology that is used to spread the messages, images, videos and other content from one user to another. In practice, this technological foundation is the internet, but the web itself is not enough. Like other online services, social media requires a device by which the service can be accessed.
During the dawn of the internet era, the electronic communications network was most often connected via desktop computers. They were impractical or impossible to move around without losing connectivity to the network. The computer was most likely situated at work or at school, sometimes at home. This meant that its use was limited. The work computer could only be used during working hours and computer use at home was, at least in the early age of internet, mostly limited by its connection to the television or telephone line.
One of the most important aspects of the revolutionary penetration of social media channels has been the development of wireless network technology. Mobile technology in particular has totally freed social media and other online services from the restrictions of space and time. A smartphone is relatively inconspicuous, easy to use and portable. The phone is wherever its user is: at home, at a party, on vacation or at an event. The experiences and phenomena people go through transform these days almost instantly into social media content. The oft-heard phrase since 2010 “if it isn’t on social media, it didn’t happen”, has become strikingly true.
Thus, using social media platforms and tools, our everyday experiences, thoughts, videos, news, photographs and their associated comments can reach an ever-larger audience at the single push of a button. To be exact, according to statistics published by the London School of Economics and Political Science in January 2019, of the total human population of 7,511 billion people, some 3,811 billion people (51%) have access to the internet and 2,895 billion people (39%) use social media actively. In addition, its use seems to be increasing despite occasional criticism. With its 1.2 billion users in 2019, Facebook, which launched in 2004, still holds its place as the most used social media channel in history.
Using social media platforms and tools, our everyday experiences, thoughts, videos, news, photographs and their associated comments can reach an ever-larger audience at the single push of a button.
To sum up, social media has made it possible for at least some bloggers, YouTubers or other active content producers to reach out to audiences that are much bigger and globally wider spread than most traditional news channels. This raises many questions not only of responsibility but also of the urgency for critical media literacy skills.