What are social media?

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There are three aims in this chapter:

  1. to reflect in how far social media are different to the prior internet applications.
  2. to reflect in how far social media change the way that people in the information society change the way they learn, work and communicate (link to next chapter).
  3. to reflect on how different social media might be used within your teaching.


  • Social media are not just new technology. They are a new way of working and communicating. By reading this article you will look behind the facade of social media and understand that the novelty of social media lies in the degree of cooperation they support: this comes in the form of user generated content.
  • Social media have now become a big trend and this article will introduce you to examples of “social media” websites that have developed in recent years.
  • This article may offer inspiration for the use of social media in your classroom teaching.

Topic 1: What's new about social media?

Social media seem to be everywhere. Every day you are able to follow discussions on how Twitter supports democracy movements against suppressing regimes, Facebook counts more members than US citizens, some pop stars have more friends than the Pope and Wikipedia offers more information than the world's largest library. All these ‘platforms’ are regarded as social media platforms. In fact, social media can be seen as a major change in the way we cooperate and work. The next article is dedicated to that issue, but firstly let us turn to the question of what social media really are.

Here are some examples of very popular social media platforms:

  • http://www.youtube.com -> a community platform where you can watch and upload videos.
  • http://www.flickr.com/ -> a community platform where you can look at and upload pictures and photos
  • http://www.twitter.com -> a community platform where you can read and post short messages of 140 characters or less
  • http://www.wikipedia.org -> a free online encyclopedia with several language versions. Users are able to edit articles and improve the quality of the encyclopedia as a community
  • http://www.blogger.com - > a platform where everybody can host an individual web diary (a "web log" or short: “blog”)

On a technical layer social media could be understood as a new generation of software applications. Let us put that aside, as a question for IT professionals while we concentrate on challenges for classroom teaching. It is relevant to point out that social media – otherwise known as "Web 2.0" - are based on a different communication model in comparison to static websites or e-mails. An easy example to explain this is by explaining the difference between Web 2.0 and Web 1.0:

Web 1.0 vs 2.0 without words

While e-mails address specific receivers and static websites are only effective if someone visits it (you have to "pull" the content - meaning that you have to be active to see what it contains), most social media websites connect people and "push" content to people (e.g. they deliver content to your e-mail or to your Facebook account). You might consider this as a shift from "push media" to "pull media" or you can call it the connection of people with people. We are calling it "user generated content". As this makes it very easy to publish content, some highlight the fact that social media are freeing people from the restrictions of editors who "censor" opinions, or "gatekeepers" who neglect their opinion in public discourses. In fact, the role that some social media are playing in democracy movements is pointing in this very direction. These simple words have huge implications. A few of them are:

  1. Social media brings people and ideas together. It's very easy to publish your ideas - contributing to the image of an information flood.
  2. Social media are dynamic, constantly changing, always growing and never complete. In comparison to a text book which is static and fixed, content on social media websites is always in motion.
  3. Social media are asking you to add in your own contributions, communicate and cooperate actively.

So far this sounds very positive and liberating however…

  1. Social media may place huge demands on your time. You may need to communicate a lot and might easily feel flooded.
  2. A lot of people are contributing to and changing content and you might feel a need for guidance and direction.

This video visualises the way that social media (here as an example: a wiki) are changing the way that people communicate and cooperate;

wikis in plain English

In short, social media are made by "everyday" people, while many static websites are made by professional communicators. This explains why so many people are using social media. They use it as a place where they can chat, exchange news and show themselves and their hobbies to other people. This process includes more and more people and is producing an enormous quantity of information. You can think of it as a "snowball effect":

Snowball effect

But...is this really relevant within education?

Topic 2: How relevant are social media?

The Social Web is diverse and rich. Consider this this graphic visualising the number of users on the biggest social media platforms - in millions of people!

Social Web Map

In most EU countries, between 30 and 50 per cent of all adults now use social media websites, as this study says. Within younger user groups, social media usage is even more widely spread.

Indeed...it is a true revolution! A social media revolution:

The Social Media Revoluton 2013

And, this is not the end. We can even see right now Web 3.0 emerging- the semantic web, linking data from different sources. This video may inspire you;

Web 3.0

We are able to see then that the ‘revolution’ makes social media relevant in our lives, and even more so in the lives of our students.

Topic 3: some examples: wikis and blogs

Let us take a closer look at two applications (wikis and blogs) that are seen as part of social media to examine their innovative character. For wikis and blogs, we distinguish between software (the technology layer), content (the mediated communication), communication situation and institutionalized utilisation in social routines. The latter describes the “rules of the game” for an interplay of software and content under which users co-operate, communicate and interact.

Wiki There is a whole article in this curriculum that is dedicated to the question how teachers could use wikis in classroom teaching. There are any misconceptions around the idea of a wiki, much of this resulting in a misunderstanding between the concepts and differences in a wiki, a Mediawiki, Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation. In short,

  • A wiki is a software platform that allows users to work together on content – often text based, with links to external websites and images where relevant.
  • Mediawiki is that specific software that is used to create Wikipedia
  • http://www.wikipedia.org/ Wikipedia] is the best known wiki platform.
  • The Wikimedia Foundation is an organization that fosters the use and development of wikis.

Jimmy Wales, one of the founders of Wikipedia (and a very optimistic protagonists of this movement), explains these differences and puts them into a context of developments:

Jimmy Wales explains wikipedia

Wikipedia's most striking characteristics are the extent its content and the increased quality of this content. Wikipedia in its English version comprises about 4.2 million articles (numbers from April 2013). It works on the basis of a small number of rules and a de-centralised quality management system with users ensuring that these rules are being followed. The comprehensive use of wikipedia at high frequency by a large number of users/authors can be considered the factor of success in this case. If you look at pure numbers, the future looks bright for Wikipedia. Considering these developments, a few differences between a wiki and the comparable off line equivalents are visible: The wiki gains its content and – therewith connected its quality and reliability - out of the users. This anonymous, heterogeneous and non-professional way of producing content clearly distinguishes it from the structured process of content production within the professional environment of, for example, a publishing house.

For this reason, we come to the conclusion that the core innovation of a wiki is the enabling and supporting of the creation of content by users – user generated content.


A blog – a made-up word combining the terms „web“ and „log“ – is an Internet based diary. We can distinguish between software, content and the application of blogs. The software (usually you use a browser window to edit a blog, but you can also use software applications or even plugins in word-processing software) establishes an interface between users and content and allows users to publish and administrate content. In a way blog software is the prime example for increasing the number of users and authors through technical simplicity. Meanwhile, most office software packages are offering a button to publish a document on a blog. The result is: Everybody able to handle the word processing program on a minimum level can publish a blog. The technology (“software”) steps back and is not visible to the user. At least, the user faces very low technological barriers in using a blog.

The “content” of a blog are the articles written by the user. A blog consists of an index page displaying the most recent post at the top of the page. New posts make older ones move further down. So, theoretically a blog is an infinite line of entries, comprising links and search functions and can therefore serve as an archive. An entry, or a “post”, consists of a headline and a short introductive text (teaser) and a hyperlink to the full text entry. In many cases, the teaser is generated automatically from the first lines of the full text.

This video illustrates these thoughts:

Blogs in plain English

The video is very instructive, but does not mention negative aspects of blogs. Due to the fact that every post has a unique and unchangeable address, bloggers can refer to these entries by setting “permalinks”. Intensive permalinking of numerous blogs has created a vast network of references: the “blogosphere”. By linking blogs and blog entries quick and easily, authors can provide news to a considerable public in a short period of time. The blogosphere can be seen as a new public being held together by technology and shared interests in the discussed topics by users that create the content of the blogosphere themselves. On the other side, blogs are not controlled (like a news paper is controlled by the editor, for example). This gives the task of control and checking back to the reader. This is demanding for the readers' media and literacy competence. Readers should be aware that a blog can be a mere opinion and checks only arise in the blogoshere by checking other blogs or media. There is another article here that discusses this issue later on.


Seeing these together, social media are an innovation that has the potential to influence the way people work, communicate and participate. The result is an emerging network of users who have built relations among each other, because of common interests or information needs, and who are also willing to publish and share information to a certain degree.

The core innovation of blogs seems to be the effortlessness of publishing. Users can use blogs to publish information with a low level of ICT skills. Combined with low costs for internet access, a broader number of users are able to blog.

The innovative aspect of social media is the “user generated content” approach, which delegates the production and provision of content to the public. Compared to traditional media where editorial staff produces and distributes content, all social media content is produced in a decentralised way while, in some cases, a group of editors may see to the rules being followed or moderate discussions.

Therefore, social media use the technological infrastructure “internet” while adding a new social dimension by applying it collaboratively. Web 2.0 describes a modified utilisation, but also a modified perception of the internet.

Topic 4: How social media savvy are you?

Now...let's check how 2.0 you are! Click on the following link to find out how many social media services you know and/or recognize:
What you know?

After this introduction and little test, let's move on to the critical question: How do we use this in the classroom?


Lesson inspiration 1: As you have read above, we regard social media as a new way of communication and cooperation. To investigate this understanding together with your students, you can facilitate a lesson with the following challenges. In this activity you will ask students to identify approaches to finding and sharing information by using social media.

“yesterday” ”todays” social media equivalent
You went to a fair please give Example
You bought and sold items on a flee market please give Example
You met new people on parties please give Example
You prepared a meeting by sending documents around please give Example
You met people in a conference room please give Example
You took your photographs to a meeting and showed them to some people please give Example
You exchanged news in a waiting room please give Example
You asked someone please give Example

Lesson inspiration 2: As a second task you can facilitate a lesson on the core innovation of social media by asking how the students already use specific websites (e.g. youtube, wikipedia, twitter etc.). Collect different website names in a first session, then ask for the activities that the students perform there. Link this to the equivalent actions that people did before the spread of digital technologies. The following grid could inspire this session, we have provided some examples:

social media platform that I use What I use it for
http://www.facebook.com Chatting, meeting friends,...
http://www.twitter.com Keeping myself updated on friends' activities, I follow some celebrities,...
http://www.wikipedia.org Search some information for assignments,...
another example please state what you use it for here...
another example please state what you use it for here...
another example please state what you use it for here...
another example please state what you use it for here...
another example please state what you use it for here...

Lesson inspiration 3: Most social media platforms are company run commercial products. This means there is somebody who wants to earn money with them. As most social media platforms are free of charge, the owners use a different budget model. Most platforms are financed by advertising, some by selling your user data. Most of these companies are run from the USA. What does this mean for customers? There are a lot of critical voices about social media platforms on the web. Ask your students to investigate these and collect some of the dangers that social media bring to users. Ask them to do some research on critical voices concerning this topic. Here are some starting points for your own research:

Lesson inspiration 4: Most of your students will have heard about social media use in democratic movements in some states. You can use this background scenario for a reflection on the access to public media in those countries. How do people there get news? What is the difference between social media and mass media that are controlled by the state?

Lesson inspiration 5: Many of your students will have practical knowledge of using social media - Facebook or Twitter for example. But do they know how to use social media for a cooperative working purpose? To facilitate this, you could perform a lesson within a social media platform. There are a lot of free wiki platforms on the web. If you Google for "free wiki hosting", you will find different platforms where you can use a wiki. Maybe your school even offers a social media platform with a wiki, or your school ministry offers a platform free of charge. You could use one of these and ask your students to write an essay together within the wiki. Each student writes a small section of text and everybody is allowed to alter text written by the others. In a final step, all students together are forming an "editorial board" and work on their text together. Make observations: Which problems occur? What solutions do the students develop? In how far is this different to writing individual essays?

A critical success factor for this kind of lesson is that you make clear that working in the wiki is like doing a homework: Each student has to register in the wiki with their own name so that you are able to take notice of each section they are writing, editing or deleting. This will prevent your students from improper behavior, but also allow individuals to recognize that there is valued.


You cannot teach social media without being there, however, if you have entered any social media site, your time budget has completely changed. Social media is really only interesting if you spend some time working within it. People (including your students) will react to you if you offer them something in exchange via social media, something of interest. You do not have to be a member of every social website, but if you want to experience the social media feeling, you should enter a social media website and look around. Be very cautious with private data (see article to this!), but find ways of using these safely within your teaching.


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