Thinking Theoretically About Social Media

One terrific side benefit of teaching PR Theory and Ethical Practice at Kent State University this fall has been reading a whole lot of interesting work from outstanding PR scholars.  William Kennan and Vince Hazleton of Radford University contributed a chapter on internal PR that got me pondering certain aspects of the Social Capital Theory as it might apply to social media.

Two items in particular in their discussion stood out. 1) The existence of a network of connections and its effect on relationships and related outcomes; and 2) Identification, the extent to which people see themselves as connected to others.

The network, the opportunity to send and receive messages that contribute to the creation, maintenance and expenditure of social capital, is a pretty obvious bridge to social media. A fair number of people think that the network is the outcome of social media use, rather than a tool for some other purpose. But let’s stay on target (we could amble down that path for hours…). My own use of social media has focused on this purpose — expand the network and see what effect it has on my ability to forge a new business. The social capital theory indicates that the network itself takes on a role apart from its human factors; that the existence of the network influences relationships and relationship outcomes.

We can see this effect in action when members of one person’s network interact with each other and cross into other networks — not for the specific purpose of dialogue toward an outcome, but merely for the sake of discourse. That discourse creates additional meaning — leading to different understandings among network members.

Secondly, identification might originate with some kind of common interest or purpose, either large or small depending on the specific subject.  The organization typically wants its employees to identify strongly with the organization, to feel strongly connected to it — that’s the heart of much employee engagement activity.  Social media users appear to identify with other users — being “in the club” commenting on Twitter gives the users a sense of belonging that they find important or pleasurable. That may be one reason, as Mark Schaefer observed, there seems to be cronyism among the social media mavens.  Heck, there seems to be cronyism among users of social media in general.

This all leads me to reinforced suspicion about whether social media can replace mainstream media.  With a tendency to see social media use as a measure of self-worth (and therefore to see people who don’t use social media as somehow inferior — “they don’t get it!”), the ability of social media to adopt a third-party objective perspective is compromised.  We can debate whether any media can be objective — if you have a strong perspective, people will know where you stand, rather than guessing about it — but making caveat emptor work requires some amount of transparency.

Authenticity can’t be a mask, it needs to be real and grounded in personal ethics so that one can judge the source and properly execute “buyer beware.” Otherwise, the identification among members of the network becomes more important than being honest.

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One Response to “Thinking Theoretically About Social Media”

  1. Sean, as always, you make some astute observations. (And you’re teaching at my alma mater!)

    I can attest to the feeling of being “in the clique” with my fellow posters at the About.com Graphic Design forum. I haven’t met any of those great folks, but everyone has posted responses to my comments, questions, rants and raves, and I feel like I know them. There have been some excellent conversations there–about design, the business of design, software and hardware, all kinds of things both work-related and not–and some excellent advice. Most qualify their responses–they are a very “authentic” lot. Even though it’s words on the computer screen, it feels very genuine and sincere. I’ve connected to them on LinkedIn and Facebook, and am following them on Twitter–they’re my “computer friends.”

    Getting back to your point, as I’ve connected to these individuals on other online networks, we’ve all been exposed to each others’ online networks. The “expanding network” is an unavoidable byproduct, just as networking in person increases one’s visibility in the physical community. My goal in joining these conversations has been to increase my visibility on the ‘net, not necessarily to increase my online network. I want someone I meet in person to be able to google me and get some taste of my intellectual capabilities, thought processes, whatever. In the meantime, I have gained immeasurable support and information that I don’t think I could have gotten anywhere else.

    Cronyism, possibly. But I don’t think it’ll replace traditional media. Maybe I’m a dinosaur, but I still like the feel of the newspaper in my hands and a cup of coffee at my side, and the inertia of using the clicker to get the news at night when I have to step away from my computer to maintain my sanity and give my aching wrist a break. (That doesn’t mean I don’t have to think.)

    I was having a conversation the other day about Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s book reader. We both agreed that the physical act of reading a book is as much a part of reading as the words. Turning the page, the feel of the paper, the size of the text (I am a graphic designer, can’t help it), the weight of the book in your hand, lap or book bag–those tactile qualities are something that any electronic book can’t touch. Plus you can still read a book if your batteries are dead.

    ANyway–interesting thought, as expected.