We define social media as technology that affords ‘scalable sociality’. By this we mean that social media provides greater control in communication over both the degree of privacy and size of group, when compared with previous forms of communications media.
Traditional media tended to divide between public broadcast to anyone who could gain access, such as radio, and private conversation, such as the telephone.
Social networking sites such as Friendster, QQ, and later on Facebook, represented a move downwards from open public broadcasting to the creation of groups where people could also interact with each other. Recently platforms such as WhatsApp and WeChat take private communications such messaging services and scale them upwards to form small groups where anyone in that group can post to anyone else.
As new platforms are continually invented, they fill this gap between the private and the public. Today we have greater choice over the degree of privacy we want or the size of group we may wish to interact with. This is why we call social media ‘scalable sociality’. By sociality we mean the way people interact with each other. To consider this idea of scales see this infograph based on the use of social media in four English schools.
Snapchat is used among small groups of close friends who trust each other not to share what they send with others. The students in the class may have a WhatsApp group with classmates of the same gender where they can talk together, Twitter is usually open to the whole class. Facebook use goes beyond the school to include family or neighbours. Finally Instagram is the only platform where they are happy to see strangers who ‘like’ the photographs they have posted. So this is a scale from the most closed to the most open platforms.
Can you think of any problems with this definition of social media as scalable sociality? Consider the ways you organise the different groups you interact with and the degrees of privacy. Do you use different platforms or find ways to work with more than one group within the same platform?