Social media as “bulletin boards”

This is a memo I sent to a friend after a discussion over the concept of “social media.” My friend contended that the various forms of media on the Internet including social networking services (SNS), blogs or mash-ups can be traced back to variants of “bulletin boards.” The following memo is written to assert needs to explore this idea.

Wikipedia defines “social media” as follows:

Social media is information content created by people using highly accessible and scalable publishing technologies. It is intended to facilitate communications, influence interaction between peers and with public audiences. This is typically done via the Internet and mobile communications networks. The term most often refers to activities that integrate technology, telecommunications and social interaction, and the construction of words, pictures, videos and audio.

……Social media are distinct from industrial media, such as newspapers, television, and film. While social media are relatively cheap tools that enable anyone (even private individuals) to publish or access information, industrial media generally require significant financial capital to publish information. Examples of industrial media issues include a printing press or a government-granted spectrum license.

While the term itself may yet to be received as a legitimate concept in the academia, I have constantly felt that while the “social” in “social media” accentuates the potential of interactions among individuals that may rival the strength of traditional institutions, it is yet to be acknowledged in the field of social sciences, particularly in sociology. As we have been discussing this over a number of years, the significance of so-called “Web 2.0” applications is not solely because of their potential lucrativeness but due to their latent powers to seamlessly integrate everyday conversations (and hence, interactions) of people into more collective but diverse speeches. “Speeches” may be a confining word here, since the information conveyed through social media does not only consist of well-written and organized texts. A short video clip you posted on YouTube, or a string of SMS you sent to Twitter can be made a public speech, regardless of how trivial their contents may be. This reminds me of what you have stated earlier, that the Internet is a collection of “bulletin boards” (although this requires a much wider definition of bulletin board that conventionally used).

The forms of these social media, or “bulletin boards” in your words, are rapidly evolving into diverse sets which possess different functions and properties. Therefore while I believe that gathering empirical data from some of these bulletin boards is critical in understanding a partial aspect of the by-then Internet, it is also insufficient from which to draw implications to reach a certain conclusion on what the Internet as a whole thing is about. Given the pending status of many questions unanswered and many others that are beginning to emerge, we are in a serious need of normative measures to address these concerns, both academically and practically. It is of little use merely witnessing the rise of social media and trying to track its evolution years later, especially when the resources to propel this kind of inquiry are spread thin across the disciplinary field. The Internet and the social media it has brought are here to stay, and it is unthinkable to watch the high times just slip by.

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