Social Media

Contributors: Linda Polin

Social media applications support communication within and across networks of people, encouraging sharing of information, ideas, practices, and experiences without the time lag of traditional publication or broadcast media. Fast and focused communication of text, images, movies, music directly or via web links supports collaboration, whether that collaboration is a trivial decision on where to dine or a more sophisticated back and forth around an ongoing project.

The content of communication can be directed to a single person or group, but it can also take the form of a broadcast to the general public or a collection of unknown followers/readers/listeners. Social media makes everyone a reporter. A tremendous variety of software applications serve in this function. Some are asynchronous personal spaces, such as Facebook or blogs. Others support instant, brief streams of communication, such as Twitter. Some support geolocated networking, such as Four Square, which lets you tell friends when and where you’ve “checked in” to a location such as school or the local museum.

Social media is about conversation, relationships, user-generated content, and immediacy. Many web applications have social media potential. Flickr, Blogs, Wikis, Twitter, Four Square, MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, social bookmarking sites, YouTube, and podcasts,are generally considered social media. In these social spaces or web destinations, a user can fashion an identity/profile, create a network of ‘friends,’ and in many cases also passively “follow” or receive the activity feed or postings from unknown others who choose to make their output available to the public. These different sites are “open” and walled-off in different ways. This is something important to consider in the understanding of social media.

Social networks that form and engage via social media can support the creation of groups that distinguish between friends, and closely knit networks or large, loosely coupled networks. Closely knit networks are small, typically family or long time mutual friends. Loosely coupled networks are typically made up of people who may not know each other but rather who share an interest, e.g., Occupy Wall Street. Members of large networks don’t communicate directly with each other as much as they address the network at large, where everyone is an audience member for everyone else.

Social media also refers to the leveraging of social networks to create, share, and steward content. That content can be as diverse as a book review posted on Amazon or a home made movie uploaded to YouTube. Content sharing spaces, content vendors, and “news” aggregators make use of social media applications or applets to perform these functions by allowing visitors or members to rate and comment on what they find on the site or ‘in the stream’, and share what they out to other social networks.

While social media use continues to grow in the public-at-large, the world of education is still determining how to use social media to engage students in learning while keeping them safe. Perhaps their most potent offering is the creation of social capital, that is, the potential to connect people to very useful other people who they might not otherwise find or know. In addition, engaging students in a real conversation about real issues is a powerful way to make learning authentic. Social Media potentially can bring new issues, people, and connections to typically closed classrooms.

Transformative Potential

Social Media is an important, but broad, concept, and consequently, the ways it can impact learning and education vary a great deal as the “what are we doing” of social media changes. For example, Social Media applications range from blogging, to pictures (Flickr), to short tweets, to connecting with others in social networking spaces, the particular benefits one receives will most likely be tied to a particular web application, with overlap between the tools. For example, of Twitter, instructors often discuss the value of students learning to express themselves in short, concise statements while in blogs, the benefit is on learning to express oneself and communicate effectively in writing. Both tools require the learner to understand the audience perspective to enhance communication. In Flickr, one can see how sharing pictures and learning from comments relates to the topic of visualization.

Social Media can benefit students at learning level, and a social level. Potential impacts on the learning process include: increased opportunities for feedback from other people in the social space; authentic conversations with “others” outside of the class; more learning from deeper engagement; and opportunities for reflection. Potential impacts on the social part of learning include much of what comes from collaborative learning projects: deeper engagement in the subject; thinking about the subject in a variety of ways; more feedback on thoughts from both instructors and students; reduced isolation; developing identity and ownership of a problem; increased efficacy and sense of achievement.

Perhaps one of the most potent benefits social media brings to learners (and all users) is the creation of social capital, that is, the potential in the connections of people to other people who they might not otherwise find or know. The potential in the connections includes, access to the other’s knowledge and their connections.


The quality of security and privacy guarantees for users varies dramatically across the social media app. landscape. Even big name players, such as Facebook, have been accused of deception with regard to promises of privacy and security of personal information. In dealing with minors this is an important problem.

Social media applications and the mobile platforms they appear on are constantly evolving and sometimes simply dying as competitive versions arise. It can be tricky to marry intentional learning methodologies to this sort of instability. We need to think more generally in terms of features and opportunities social apps present and/or consider the shelf-life vulnerability of social-media-based innovations in teaching.


Most social media systems (sites and applications) are organizationally flat; they do not support traditional hierarchies of authority. As such they are vulnerable to misinformation and to the rule of the mob.

Social media are, by definition, communications channels built to support social interaction, not learning, and certainly not formal, intentional learning. People who are deeply immersed in social media may find it difficult or repellent to engage with these systems for the purpose of learning. Teens especially have been shown to be fickle rather than loyal to any particular application or web service, eschewing sites and apps that become colonized by commercial marketing or even simply “adults.”


boyd, d. (2010). Social network sites as networked publics: Affordances, dynamics, and implications. Chapter 2 in Papacharissi, Z. (Ed.) Networked self: Identity, community, and culture on social network sites. NY: Routledge

boyd, d., Hargittai, E., Schultz, J. & Palfrey, J. (2011). Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age: Unintended consequences of the ‘Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act’. First Monday, 16(11).

Buckingham, D. (Ed.) (2007). Youth, identity, and digital media. MIT Press.

Ito, M., Horst, H., Antin, J., Finn, M., Law, A., Manion, A., Mitnick, S., Schlossberg, D., & Yardi, S. (2009). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. MIT Press.

Madden, M. & Zickuhr, K. (2011). 65% of online adults use social networking sites. Report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, August 26, 2011.

Purcell, K., Entner, R., Henderson, N. (2010). The rise of apps culture. Report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, September 15, 2010.