Reading Digital Social Media
Social media has been defined as "a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of [the web], and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content." It includes a constantly evolving set of interactive platforms and applications through which users and the communities they form can share, co-create, mediate and alter user-generated content. As technology develops, participation in social media platforms is an increasingly integral part of participating fully in any community.
Many social media platforms integrate use of images, video, and text, embedded or linked. Content shared within these contexts often share characteristics with advertising as they seek to grab viewer’s attention from within a screen framework that offers more content than a viewer has time to consume systematically. Content also trends toward brevity and concision, often for similar reasons.
Some questions to engage with as you navigate and encounter social media content are:
How does my relationship (literal or digital) with other persons who shared, suggested, or created this content affect my choice to view or read it and what preconceived notions of its credibility result from this relationship?
You may encounter some content where it is difficult to even identify the source or creator. The “social” in social media means that our interpersonal relationships are an added dimension to our relationship with any text. When a person we admire links to an article or video on Facebook or Twitter, how does it affect our likeliness to choose to spend time engaging with that content? How does it predispose us toward that content?
Do I recognize that this image or message is constructed? What is omitted, what is included, and why?
The presentation of “self” that we see via social media platforms is invariably not transparent. The nature of social media platforms requires that real life be edited into constructed pieces. How individuals choose what parts of themselves to share, and in what light, is called “personal branding,” and can be constructed or deconstructed similarly to commercial branding. The images that someone chooses for their Instagram feed are in this nature similar to a Public Relations campaign.
Can I identify the evolving “cultures, subcultures, genres, codes, and conventions” that contribute to the way this message is presented?
Each time you encounter a parody or remix on YouTube, you might ask how many layers of assumed cultural understanding lie between your experience with the text and that of someone encountering the text from another time, planet, or continent.
Can I identify how the audience played a role in determining the content and tone of this message? Do I recognize my active role in interpreting meaning?
Especially in the post-Web 2.0 era of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Google Analytics, many professional social media content creators are basing their content choices on measurable audience behaviors. All social media content is created to be seen and shared by others, and that awareness of “others,” affects the process of creating the content. Conversely, as you encounter a blog post, your experience with that text is unique from that of every other reader because of the blend of social background, experience, and mood that you bring to your encounter.
Do I have an understanding of the commodified commercial realities that underwrite social media? Can I see how they commodify both users and content and shape the parameters of what is and is not shared?
Social Media platforms are created to make money. Occasionally, as in the case of Facebook, the methods of commodifying the platform are developed after the platform has evolved and matured somewhat. The commercial nature of social media sites can be as blatant as side-bar ads, or as nuanced as allowing content creators to pay to make their posts more likely to appear closer to the top of more people’s feeds. In the marketplace of social media, the commodities are users and the currency is content.
Am I prepared to challenge the “naturalness” of value assumptions that underlie this message?
Largely because of the brevity of most social media content, large swaths of social, moral, and economic common ground is assumed in most messages. When a Pinterest pinboard of interior design images is curated, it seems to be assumed that the audience will agree that these images represent a desirable aesthetic ideal, rather than oppressive bourgeoisie opulence. Especially as social media uses tend to gravitate toward content that agrees with their moral and social beliefs, it can become difficult to identify those beliefs and assumptions within the content and separate them from the text itself.
Can I recognize that audience participation in this platform is not a substitute for being a critically engaged “active audience,” nor for social action?
There are a lot of examples of non-constructive participation in social media in the comments section of just about any online news article. Simply sharing and commenting online does not constitute the “active audience” that is engaged in critical thinking. Highly emotional responses, while they serve their own functions, are often not maximizing critical engagement with the source text. A critical participant in Social Media should strive to evaluate texts on their own terms, and carefully consider points of view, social contexts, credibility, and intended audience. Their responses and comment participation should reflect this careful, close reading.
Do I determine quickly whether I agree with or disagree with this message? Am I able to acknowledge the social dimensions of my thinking and analysis?
Every user of social media has a finite amount of time to devote to it. This requires choices about what content to engage with, and for how long and with how much intensity. It is impractical to advise that all content be given equal consideration, but each user should be aware of what factors frame their choices in this context. The predisposition of many to only invest in content that reinforces their accepted worldview does not make for an expanding social media experience.
 Kaplan Andreas M., Haenlein Michael (2010). "Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media". Business Horizons. p. 61.
 Canada's Ontario Ministry of Education's Eight Key Concepts, British Film Institute's Signpost
Questions, The Center for Media Literacy's Five Core Concepts, and so on. See the latter's website at:
 Barthes, R. (1998). Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang. (p. 11)
 Hall, S. (1980). Encoding/Decoding. In S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Lowe, & P. Willis (Eds.), Culture, media,language (pp. 128–138). London: Hutchinson.
 Ferguson, R. (2004). The media in question. London: Arnold