In contemporary times, virtually everybody on the accessible side of the digital divide knows what social media is, and probably uses at least one platform to connect with people within their social networks. A succinct definition of social media is that the term references the use of media (usually online or digital) to facilitate the sharing of information, ideas, and etc., between people, usually within a network connected via a media platform.
In keeping with this latter definition, the dominant medium supporting social media is the Internet and Internet applications designed specifically for facilitating online social interactions. These interactions can, in turn, be used for everything from putting up an advert for a Toyota Yaris for sale in Gauteng to an ad to go shopping at www.uPrice.co.za, to engaging old and distant friends. The benefits of social media are varied and widespread.
As is evident upon reflection, social media sites depend heavily on quick interactivity between users, the platform, and one another. Additionally, the vast majority of content on social media platforms is generated by the users themselves, thus creating a highly decentralised form of information dissemination. Whereas the latter points, potentially, to democratisation of information, it also creates the potential for the widespread dissemination of misinformation.
Social media, as a phenomenon, is also prone to the distribution of uncensored information. Again, this is a double edged sword as it can both aid individuals in obtaining useful and correct information that can be put towards socially constructive events (as happened in Egypt in 2011); but the uncensored information could also be hate speech, propaganda, or even virtual bullying. The damaging effects of the latter should not be underestimated as vulnerable people have been adversely affected by the spreading of unchecked rumours, slanderous speech, etc.
The negative aspects of social media aside, the ability of individuals and communities to create, co-create, discuss, evaluate and modify user generated content can lead to enormously constructive activities. As social media proliferates further into social communities it alters the communication dynamic extant between individuals, groups, organisations and companies. Indeed, companies have taken note of how pervasive and influential social media can be, and have incorporated social media strategies into marketing gambits. Some organisations have allocated considerable sums of money into social media marketing as the return on investment (ROI) has proven that social media marketing is a justified expense.
Social media differentiates itself from traditional media primarily by the changes in the information ownership dynamics, the decentralisation of distribution, and the control of preferred content. In social media contexts, the communication is two ways rather than one way, as it is in mass media production. The popularity of this dynamic has resulted in the fact that social media websites are more frequented than any other type of site, including traditional media sites. This fact is nothing less than remarkable and worldwide each month (collectively) billions of minutes are spent on social media sites, whether they be Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest or multiplayer online games like World of War Craft or Second Life.
Another criticism levelled against current social media platforms is that they remain largely exclusive from one another (meaning that information is kept exclusive to each site), and that (as already mentioned) information may be untrustworthy. One of the largest advantages to social media is that it allows friends living in different locations (cities, countries and even continents) to connect with one another on a regular basis, thus maintaining a relationship that would otherwise be neglected owing to logistics.