New technology seems to arrive at the speed of thought, and it can be difficult for the casual web user to keep up with all of it. If you have ever shied away from a conversation that steered toward anything web-related or have ever shrugged your shoulders when you heard terms like social networking, tweeting, status updates, wikis, blogs, or social media, you are not alone, and this guide should help you get a basic overview of what social media is and how it is used.
A clear definition
The first problem with social media is that it means different things to different people, but it is important for someone trying to understand it to have a clear definition of what it means. Social media, in this context, refers to any site on the web that relies on participatory input and interaction among its visitors. Part or all of the content is created by the users.
Social media has taken over the web in a very short amount of time. Nearly all of the top sites on the web are participatory in essence, excluding the search engines, and nearly all sites have at least some participatory elements (such as comments).
Types of Social Media
While there are many forms social media can take, one can basically divide them into five categories, and each category has several sub-categories with accompanying examples:
Wikis — Easily editable encyclopedias. Often open to any users, although some are more restrictive.
Open Content — Content licensed for reuse and sharing
Example: Creative Commons
Social Bookmarking — Sites that allow users to bookmark, share, and discover websites.
Examples: Delicious, Google Bookmarks, Stumbleupon
Social News — Share links to news and comment on stories
Examples: Digg, Slashdot, Reddit
Blogs — Services or software for easy user publishing, comments, and more
Example: WordPress, Blogger
Micro-blogging — Very brief blog updates, often shorter than 140 characters
Examples: Twitter, Identi.ca
Social networking — General social interaction, sharing, and friendship building.
Example: Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn
Photo sharing — Publish photos for the world to see, comment, and share
Examples: Flickr, Smugmug, Picasa
Video sharing — Publish your own videos online
Examples: YouTube, Vimeo, Dailymotion
Live streaming — Stream live videos
Examples: Livevideo, Justin.tv, USTREAM
Audio and Music sharing — Share favorite music streams
Examples: Last.fm, Like.fm
4. Reviews and Opinions:
Product Reviews — Rate products for quality and price
Questions and Answers — Anyone can ask and answer questions
Examples: Yahoo Answers
Employer/Educator reviews — Find out how good an employer, professor, or other authority figure is
Example: Rate My Professor
Real Estate — Rate apartments, houses, neighborhoods, and commercial property
Examples: ApartmentRatings, Neighborhood Scout
Virtual Worlds — Create avatars and live out virtual lives
Example: Second Life
Social Gaming– Play games online with other players
Examples: Browser-based games like Farmville and MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) games like World of Warcraft
Beyond websites and services specifically designed for social media, many personal, non-profit, and commercial websites incorporate social media elements. For example, many shopping sites like Amazon.com and eBay allow users to review products, rate them, and even resell items. Most news sites, even from corporate media, now give readers the ability to comment on articles, audio, and video. Furthermore, many sites incorporate elements from established social media sites. For example, a site may have a Facebook "Like" button or a Twitter sharing button. Some may even allow you to share their content on several different social media sites.
Although social media as a concept is relatively new, the actual implementation of online participatory elements predates the term. Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), for example, date back to the 1970s, and chat rooms have been a part of the Internet from the beginning. With a steady evolution, most interactive features of the Internet (such as email) are now integrated into the web. Because of this, some people use computers and never close their web browsers.
According to web experts at UK dedicated hosting 34SP.com, when the web was created, it was intended to be a participatory tool that anyone could use to create and innovate. Social media is just a step in the direction of realizing that vision of a participatory culture, where a free exchange of ideas and knowledge flourishes.
About the Author
Tavis J. Hampton is a librarian and writer with a decade of experience in information technology, web hosting, and Linux system administration. His freelance services include writing, editing, tech training, and information architecture.
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