Understanding Social Media


Sam Hinton & Larissa Hjorth

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    Firstly, the authors would like to thank series editors Jen Webb and Tony Shirato and Sage's Mila Steele for their help in developing this publication.

    Secondly, we would like to thank the wonderful community of researchers who are exploring social media for all your insights, inspiration and thoughtful provocations. We would also like to acknowledge the support of the University of Canberra and RMIT University, Melbourne.

    Sam would like to thank his family, friends and colleagues in media, arts and production, who gave him both the time and space to bring this book together, and to his co-author, Larissa Hjorth, whose energy and intelligence pushed this book through from draft to conclusion. Sam would like to dedicate this book to his family: Nicole, Catherine and Sarah – you three continue to humble me.

    Larissa would like to thank the Australia Research Council for a discovery grant (DP0986998) that allowed her the time to conduct empirical research for this book. She would also like to thank family and friends and dedicates this book to her son, Jesper, and brother, Greg.

  • Glossary

    • API (application program[mable] interface) – a set of software tools that can be used by a computer programmer to access a complex web service or hardware component.
    • App – an application that is accessed by users over a network, or which is downloaded to a mobile device. The term is becoming complicated as the mobile ‘app store’ method of application delivery is extended to the desktop.
    • Big Data – the proliferation of data in current society.
    • Big Media – large companies that treat the news as a commodity, where costs of making news are pushed down while profits are maximised; this is rarely aligned with good journalism.
    • Casual games – social media games that allow players to engage with the games for minutes at a time, as opposed to the more demanding MMOGs.
    • Citizen journalists – amateurs offering an alternative to the mainstream media, operating mainly through their own blogs.
    • Clicktivism – the pollution of activism with the logic of consumerism.
    • Computational turn – a term that points to the way that computer technology appears to be changing processes and structures of existing organisations. For example, the computational turn in journalism relates to the way that news research and publication has been altered by the emergence of the networked computer and the internet.
    • Folksonomy – a portmanteau of ‘folk’ and ‘taxonomy’, meaning a classification system generated by the general public.
    • Gamification – making something more game-like by introducing game development principles into its design. An example might be educational software that aims to engage students by presenting educational material in the form of a game.
    • Geotagging – using an LBS (see below) to associate geographic location with some other kinds of data such as a photograph or text message.
    • GPS (global positioning system) – technologies that calculate the position of a ground-based device through satellite communication. Modern GPSs provide accuracy to within about 3 to 15 metres and are becoming a regular component in modern smartphones.
    • HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) – the technical term given to the method for transferring web pages across the internet. Other internet services (like email) use different protocols.
    • ICT (information and communication technology) – a catch-all term that covers computer and network technology. The more pervasive ICT becomes, the less useful this term becomes.
    • IM (instant messaging) – a computer-based chat system that allows one or more people to ‘talk’ by typing words into the system. When the typed text is sent, the person or people connected to the chat session will see the other person's words instantly. This is similar to email in that it is text-based, but its speed allows for more rapid conversations to take place.
    • Intimacy – in common usage, this refers to very close relationships between people, typically lovers or family members. However, intimacies also exist when referring to social relations at larger scales. For example, there are intimacies between people who belong to the same country or culture (a large- or macro-scale social group).
    • ISP (internet service provider) – a company that provides a person or organisation with internet access, almost always in return for a fee.
    • Killer app – a software application that is so successful that it sells the platform that it runs on.
    • LBS (location based service) – a collection of technologies that allow a device to map its position. GPS is one LBS technology, but there are others, such as digital compasses, those that calculate a position by triangulating the signal strengths of known wireless internet or mobile signal towers, and those that use accelerometers in order to determine the orientation of a device with respect to the ground. Many LBSs use a combination of these technologies.
    • Local, the – a term that describes things that are close to an individual, not just physically (the local shops) but also culturally and socially (close friends, for example, may not be physically close).
    • Macro – cultural level.
    • Media – any technology that stands in between and facilitates communication between two or more people.
    • Meso – social level.
    • Micro – individual level.
    • MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) – games that uses computer network technology (typically the internet) to allow many players to occupy a virtual game space at the same time such that they can interact with each other.
    • Mobile publics – associations between people (publics) that are made possible owing to or through the use of mobile technologies.
    • MSN (the Microsoft Network) – an early attempt by the software company Microsoft to create a proprietary internet-like online service.
    • MUDs (multi-user dungeons/domains) – like MMOGs (see above), but were text-based and descriptive instead of graphical.
    • Networked publics – public groupings that are structured by the logic and reality of computer networks.
    • OCR (optical character recognition) – a method for translating an image of printed text into letters and numbers that can be edited and searched on a computer.
    • Online activism – the use of internet or mobile (online) technologies to enhance, support and/or promote social activism around a topic or event.
    • Platform – a service or software application that supports other software or activities. For example, an SNS like Facebook is both a platform for social interaction and a platform for software apps such as Facebook games.
    • Produser – a user who produces (rather than just consuming) internet content. The term emphasises the highly interactive nature of much social media use, wherein the user often contributes their own creative products to websites. Produsage includes activities such as uploading videos and photos to web services like Flickr and building and maintaining blogs.
    • Remediation – a term used by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin (1999) to describe the way that new media tends to call upon the conventions of earlier forms of media. So, for example, photography remediates perspective painting, and YouTube remediates television.
    • Sentiment analysis – a technique whereby the computer attempts to determine the affective meaning of pieces of text.
    • Slacktivism – activism that is lazy, half-hearted and generally ‘slack’.
    • Smart mobs – a large group of people who use mobile technologies as a way of connecting with each other, thus allowing the group to act with a kind of collective intelligence.
    • SMS (short messaging system) – the technical term for mobile phone texting; that is, sending short text messages from one mobile phone handset to another.
    • SNS (social network site) – websites that support or extend social networks. According to danah boyd, the basic requirements of an SNS are: 1) the ability to create a profile; 2) a ‘friends’ list or similar; 3) exploration of friends lists and perhaps others in the system (boyd and Ellison 2007). Typically, most online relationships are with people who are already part of the user's offline social network.
    • Social capital – once defined by Pierre Bourdieu (1984 [1979]) as social ‘knowledge’, the term has taken on a variety of definitions to reflect changing social relationships/connections and the fabric of community.
    • Social, the – a general term used to describe the social world that constantly surrounds us and in which we live. The term reminds us that although we live in a physical world of things, we also live in a social world, which has a very large influence on how we act and behave.
    • TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) – the technical method that is used by computers to share information across the internet.
    • Ubiquitous computing – the idea that a computer can be accessed anywhere, anytime. The term has gained currency as computer technologies have become smaller and cheaper to the point where many people now carry around networked computers in their pockets in the form of a mobile telephone. Ubiquitous computing can also refer to the use of computers in objects like appliances and buildings.
    • UCC (user created content) – content that is created by non-professional people who would otherwise be considered consumers. Amateur photos, fan fiction and homemade video are all examples of user created content. In this book we prefer to use the term ‘UCC’ when we are specifically referring to works intentionally created by users.
    • UGC (user generated content) – this is similar to UCC but covers a broader range of user-produced material. In this book we define UGC as material that is produced as a by-product of another activity, possibly without any knowledge or intent on the part of the creator. An example of UGC could be forum posts, in which the content of the website is text created by users, and read by other users.
    • URL (uniform/universal resource locator) – this is a string of letters that describes where something is on the internet. A web site location, written like http://www.mysite.com is an example of a URL.
    • Vernacular creativity – this term was suggested by Jean Burgess (2007) in order to describe everyday creativity. This kind of creativity is distinguished from professional or artistic creativity because it is practised in non-work contexts and is designed for local consumption. For example, arranging and decorating a photo album is an act of vernacular creativity because it is in no way commercial, and the intended audience is local – friends and family. Vernacular creativity often has very situated meanings; in other words, the significance and meaning of pictures in the photo album can best be appreciated by close friends or family who share memories or knowledge of the people and places in the photos.
    • Web portals – sites that aim to aggregate users around centralised content.


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