The Etymology of Online Social Media

14 Feb 2010|Leigh Marinner

It’s no secret that online social networking is growing rapidly. But did Twitter and Facebook spring up from nothing, like Athena bursting fully formed from Zeus’ brow? Or are there general social trends which helped birth social media?

The growth in social networking sites has been phenomenal. Morgan Stanley reported that globally people spent more than five and a half hours on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter in December 2009, an 82% increase over the previous year. Three-quarters of the total Internet audience visited a social networking site in December, according to comScore. So it isn’t just teenagers sharing photos of last weekend’s wild party. 94% of US 18-34 year-olds use a social networking site, but so do 67% of 45-54 year-olds, and 55% of those 55+.


the etymology


Graph courtesy of comScore

Online social networking growth is the extension of a number of general social trends Cheskin Added Value has observed.

Trend #1: Virtual is “real”
Virtual presence has become just as real, if not more so, than the physical world, especially but not only for younger people. The virtual world provides real social interaction.

Anyone who has an 8-14 year-old child is probably familiar with the child saying he is playing with his friend so-and-so, only to walk into the room and find him alone holding his iPhone or working his videogame controller.

Improvements in social networking and mobile computing platforms, such as the iPhone and Android phones, are fundamentally changing the ways people communicate with each other. Many people are as satisfied relating on Facebook as they are in face-to-face social situations. Instead of talking, people are using their mobile phones more and more to text or to access Facebook. The Economist reported that in 2002 the average Japanese mobile user spoke on his phone for 181 minutes each month. By early 2009 that had fallen to 133 minutes. Communities or friends are no longer dependent on geographical proximity, but can socialize in a meaningful way online.

Trend # 2: Increase in mobility
We’re traveling further, faster, commuting more and spending more time away from our home and office. Improvements in mobile devices are supporting this trend.

Although mobile phone penetration in the US is leveling off, we are seeing rapid growth in mobile Internet users and mobile social network users (eMarketer).

the etymology 2


Graph courtesy of eMarketer

As people spend more time moving around, location-based mobile services are emerging. Friend finder services like BrightKite or Loopt let users post messages or photos with their location update. Users can track the location and activities of their friends (subject to privacy settings). Augmented reality apps like Layar let users view information, including status updates from their friends, on the mobile phone’s camera viewer as they point it at something in the real world.

Trend # 3: 24×7 availability
People are expected to be available 24×7 no matter where they are. It’s hard to disconnect from email, mobile phones, texting, and social networks. People expect to get answers to their questions immediately. No more waiting for the library to open – go to Google or Yelp or ChaCha or Yahoo! Answers.

One of the changes this trend has engendered is that Facebook is becoming the home page for more and more people. If your social group expects that you will be checking Facebook regularly, they expect you receive any messages posted there, and thus a virtuous cycle emerges so many people feel they need to check in on Facebook almost constantly.

The expectation of immediate answers is supporting efforts to dip into the Twitter stream to get real-time answers. It is a vision of the future in which technology will be able to sort through the noise and clutter of the current social web and published information, to feed us the information we want when we want it. Augmented reality apps are a small step toward that goal, where the user can point their mobile phone toward a street and visually view data associated with that location – which friends are in the area, what stores are offering discounts, etc.

Trend # 4: Increasing transparency of personal information
Whether we like it or not, information that previous generations would consider sensitive and would require a private investigator to dig up is now easily available online. Experts can figure out a person’s social security number if they know only the birth date and location. And with the social security number, a lot of personal information is available.

Some people have accepted this fact, and assume that their personal lives are pretty much open to the public. So posting on Facebook doesn’t give them any more or less privacy. In fact, Facebook may give them more privacy. One teenager I know told me:

“Twitter is a different type of social network than Facebook. Facebook is about connecting people, and sharing information with each other. The way my friends and I see it, Facebook is a closed network. It’s a network of people and friends that you trust to be connected to, and to share information like your email address, AIM screen name, and phone number. You know who’s getting your status messages, because you either approved or added each person to your network. With Twitter, it’s the exact opposite. Anyone can follow your status updates.”

Maybe this is one reason teens aren’t using Twitter. The Pew Internet & American Life Project found that only 8% of Internet users ages 12 to 17 use Twitter, but that 73% of wired American teenagers use social networking sites.

Trend # 5: Disappearing formality
Casual dress codes have redefined the workplace. People call each other by first names. Mr. and Mrs. are seldom heard.

This trend supports the acceptance of sharing on social networks. Personal activities aren’t considered as private as they used to be. There is no need to be introduced to someone formally, as in the past. Many people meet people sharing similar interests online. Facebook’s “friends of friends” offers users ways to link to people they have never met.

Social media is creating its own trends

The growth of social networks is having a reverse effect, causing changes in our offline social behaviors. We used to live in an online world of the “Document web”. Authorities published articles that were made available on the web. The publisher had the power and the legitimacy. Now we are in an era of the “Social web”, where the conversations surrounding a story are what hold our attention. Information on important events, available through the social web, is often more current and more thorough. Blogs and comments on blogs can be more influential than the original published content.

The latest information about Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti for instance, was available on the social web when official sources had little or old information. This points to an undermining of the traditional authority model, one of the factors leading to the downfall of newspapers. It is just one of many behavioral trends coming to light due to the phenomenon of social media. Undoubtedly, many more will emerge in the coming years.

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