What exactly is social media?

This isn’t a question I had thought about much until near the end of my masters degree. In 2012 I attended a lecture by Robert Fraser, a nurse and the author of The Nurse’s Social Media Advantage. I remember being inspired by his thoughts on social media’s potential within nursing and healthcare. I was also surprised by how many websites and apps fall under the category of social media.

Social media refers to internet-based technologies that encourage dialogue, the creation or co-creation and sharing of knowledge, and the formation of virtual communities and networks.1-3 Social media has allowed laypeople who are not web programmers to easily publish and share information.4,5 It also allows people to follow and engage in information that they feel is relevant to them.6

“It is ultimately not about the technology itself; it’s about connections between people. I do not believe that social media isolates us because it glues us to a computer screen or a smartphone; I believe it brings us together”5, p.xxiv

What I love most about social media is how it can foster multidirectional communication of information. Traditional forms of disseminating information (e.g. broadcasting and print media) tend to just push information out into the world.4 Additionally, traditional methods of mass media features a finite number of people who have power over what information gets shared.4 Social media disrupts this monopoly.4 Information shared through social media does not flow exclusively from one source, and it typically invites dialogue and engagement from its audience.2,4,6 This makes social media more difficult to censor, which in turn makes it a pretty useful tool for human rights movements.4 Widespread access to mobile devices – which are now commonly equipped with cameras and data plans – allows citizens to report on events as they are happening.4

Considering all of this, perhaps it’s not surprising that social media is often perceive to be more honest that traditional broadcasting and print media!6

Types of Social Media

Mind map created with MindMeister.

I think a lot of people just think about social networking – like Facebook – when they think of social media. However, social media is so much more than just social networking sites. For example:

Blogs: short for weblogs. Blogs share a series of content that is most commonly arranged chronologically starting from the most recent post.3 Categories and tags can usually be added to posts, which makes it easier to search for content rather than sifting through all of the posts.3 Examples of blogs include WordPress (which is what I use) and Tumblr.

Microblogs: similar to blogs, except they only permit the dissemination of small spurts of information.2,3 Twitter is the most popular example.

File Sharing / Collaboration: social media tools that can be used to share files and/or collaborating synchronously or asynchronously on projects from different locations.3 Some collaborative tools – such as Google Doc – will store your files in the cloud.5 Basically this is just an online service that stores your data. This means you don’t need to worry about your computer crashing, and collaborators can work simultaneously on the same document.5 Another example of a file sharing tool is Dropbox.

Social Networking: I know I said that social media is so much more than social networking sites, but they still merit discussion! Social media platforms are tools that facilitate connection, networking, and information sharing between users.3 Some examples include FacebookLinkedInResearchGate and Academia.edu.

Video and Picture Sharing: websites that allow users to upload, view and often comment on digital media, such as videos and pictures.1,3 For example, VimeoYouTubeFlickr and Instagram.

Learning Management Systems: tools that allow for “the creation of online learning environments and the management and delivery of course content and resources to students.”3 Many students are familiar with Blackboard, which is an example of a learning management system.

Now this list isn’t exhaustive, and some social media platforms can be classified as more than one type of social media. For example, Facebook is a social networking platform that also allows for sharing videos and pictures. However, hopefully this provides enough of a foundation for us to go into some more exciting issues surrounding social media in subsequent posts!



  1. Canadian Nurses Association (CNA). When private becomes public: the ethical challenges and opportunities of social media. Ethics Pract Regist Nurses. 2012:1-15. https://www.cna-aiic.ca/~/media/cna/page-content/pdf-en/ethics_in_practice_feb_2012_e.pdf?la=en
  2. Coons S. Communication through social media: its potential and pitfalls. Res Pract. 2012;13(2):44-50.
  3. Fraser R. The nurse’s social media advantage. Indianapolis, IN: Sigma Theta Tau International; 2011.
  4. Wyrwoll C. Introduction. In: Wyrwoll C, ed. Social media: fundamentals, models and ranking of user-generated content. Germany: Springer Vieweg; 2013:1-10.
  5. Rasmussen Neal D. Introduction. In: Rasmussen Neal D, ed. Social media for academics: a practical guide. Oxford, UK: Chandos Publishing; 2012:xxiii-xxviii.
  6. Lobb A, Mock N, & Hutchinson PL. Traditional and social media coverage and charitable giving following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Prehosp Disaster Med. 2012;27(3):319-324.