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Social Media and Online Communities: Popularity, Use & Purpose

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  • 0:02 Social Media
  • 0:40 Definition and History
  • 3:09 Uses and Concerns
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the new and ever-changing environment of social media platforms, as well as detailing some of its uses and some of its purported dangers.

Social Media

'Facebook me!' is such a common request between two people meeting each other nowadays that no one even bats an eye when they hear it. Never mind that 'Facebook' is a noun and not a verb - the omnipresent social media platform has pervaded nearly all aspects of Americans' lives, whether it's as a way to for you to invite people to a party this weekend or how your grandmother shares photos of her new dog with you. Perhaps the most astonishing thing is that Facebook and other social media platforms like it are barely even a decade old - true creations of the 21st century. In this lesson, we'll discuss social media, its brief history, and some of the major uses and concerns about it.

Definition and History

Social media refers to any Internet website, smartphone application, or other modern technology that allows people to connect with one another and build online communities. The breadth of this definition is vast, including groups of friends in the same city who create an online community or message board to coordinate activities better and groups of people who have never met face-to-face and are simply united due to common interests or common causes. Social media is incredibly flexible this way. In general, it allows its users to decide what the uses of its product should be. This is a huge part of why it has become so successful so quickly.

One of the first of these platforms - and certainly the first to gain widespread acclaim - was Facebook. Facebook was created in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg and several of his Harvard classmates. Originally designed as a tool to allow Harvard students to view pictures and eventually communicate with other Harvard classmates, the site expanded to other universities and was opened to the public in September 2006. It grew the fastest in these first years, having approximately 100,000 users by August 2008. By September 2012, Facebook's one billionth user had created an account.

Facebook is not the only social media platform to explode in popularity so quickly. Arguably the second largest social media platform is Twitter. Twitter was first made public in July 2006 as a way to communicate with the public and with others in messages of only 140 characters in length. The service quickly gained popularity as people used it for all sorts of things, from people communicating with friends about their daily lives to news outlets publishing stories hoping to reach a broader - and likely younger - audience. Specialized codes were written to accommodate the format, as long hyperlinks were collapsed into shorter forms in order to accommodate Twitter's format. By summer 2010, Twitter reported that approximately 65,000,000 tweets were posted each day on the site's servers.

Though these are the two most well-known, there are other and newer social media platforms cropping up each day. Instagram, for example, was created as a way to quickly and easily share photos and quick captions with friends, family, and online followers, and was so successful it was purchased by Facebook in 2014. For each Instagram and Twitter, however, there are just as many social media failures as success stories. Whether it is due to improper marketing or usages that are too closely related to what successful platforms already do, it is important to remember that social media is a fluid and continuously changing environment.

Uses and Concerns

As we have discussed briefly above, social media has a diverse and varied number of uses that are largely dependent on the desires of the user. For example, it's entirely possible on both Facebook and Twitter to converse and share solely with friends you have made offline, even though both platforms encourage wider use. While many people use social media to converse with these friends, most users also use it to connect with new people or communicate with formerly close friends and family who live at a distance or who have simply been out of touch.

While these are the most common uses for social media, especially among the general public, social media is also a huge opportunity for businesses, especially start-ups and newer businesses hoping to attract a wider and younger clientele. Marketing campaigns, social media-based contests, and carefully placed tweets during important events can reach users and make them aware of a company they may have previously never discovered. In fact, most tech-savvy companies nowadays are hiring full-time employees - at times even entire departments - to manage their company's myriad social media outreach accounts.

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