Professor Thomas Aichner on 25 Years of Social Media

JCU Marketing Professor Thomas Aichner recently published the article “Twenty-Five Years of Social Media: A Review of Social Media Applications and Definitions from 1994 to 2019’’ on Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., a leading independent publisher of scientific, technical, and medical content.

Thomas Aichner

Thomas Aichner

According to Professor Aichner, the term ‘‘social media’’ was first used in 1994 on a Tokyo online media environment, called Matisse. Despite social media being one of the most commonly used terms today, there is no single understanding about what it includes and how it should be defined.

One of the first social media platforms was SixDegrees, which was active from 1997 to 2001. Another former market leader that became irrelevant was MySpace, which was the largest social networking site from 2005 to 2009. Currently, Facebook has more than 2.7 billion monthly active users (MAU), which is 35% of the world’s population. Other global players include Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, and Twitter. These global networks face serious competition by some regional platforms such as the Russian VKontakte with 70 million MAU and the Chinese QZone with 600 million MAU, to name just a few.

There are hundreds of social media platforms with millions or billions of registered users. From a broad perspective, social media does not just include the above-mentioned social networks, microblogs, and photo/video sharing websites, but a wide variety of other platforms as well. For example, Amazon is considered a social media platform, as user-generated content (UGC) such as product reviews, ratings, questions, and comments play a significant role in its success. Another example is Wikipedia, a collaborative project which is almost entirely made of UGC of both registered and non-registered users.

Given the large number of platforms, which greatly differ in terms of target users, functionality, and services offered, how can social media be defined, and what are its major applications? These questions are answered in Professor Aichner’s article. In short, there is no single or commonly accepted definition, and the focus of the many definitions has changed over time. Regarding what social media is mainly used for, it can be summarized in five applications:

Socializing with friends and family
People mainly use social media to communicate with people they know, including close family members. More than 90% of students say that the main reason to use social media is communicating with family and friends.

• Romance and flirting
The most recent numbers indicate that about 40% of couples met online. Research has also shown that rejection on social media is less painful compared to face-to-face rejection.

• Interacting with companies and brands
All major companies are on social media, because it gives them a chance to communicate directly with consumers and build stronger brand relationships. Likewise, users are interested in having quick and easy access to promotions, information, and customer support.

• Job seeking and professional networking
87% of recruiters regularly uses LinkedIn to post job openings or review applicants. Social media offers recruiters free access to candidates’ profiles and an instant means of communication. Equally important, users can create a professional network that also facilitates career progression and professional success.

• Doing business
Finally, social media providers have created opportunities for companies to improve their internal operations and communicate in new ways with customers, other businesses, and suppliers. Currently, about 14% of all retail sales worldwide are made online, with a significant percentage being directly or indirectly driven by social media marketing, advertising, and analytics.

What are the disadvantages of social media today?
With all the positive and useful applications outlined above, there are of course also some challenges and disadvantages to social media – both from a personal and societal point of view. First, the use of social media can become addictive. One reason for social media addiction is the production of dopamine – a chemical associated with pleasure – whenever users get likes. To get likes, and therefore produce dopamine, users tend to spend more time on social media and post more often. As a direct result of wanting to get more likes, users may photoshop their pictures and apply filters to create a virtual identity that often does not represent their actual looks. ‘Selfie dysmorphia’ is a worrying trend that pushes young people to turn to plastic surgery to appear as they do on their modified social media pictures. Furthermore, social media gives users the possibility to remain anonymous. This can be problematic in terms of social interaction because anonymous users are more inclined to bully or insult other people as opposed to non-anonymous users.

In addition, leading social media platforms use algorithms to moderate, censor, and target content. This gives them the possibility to decide what news and information certain user segments see. A recent phenomenon is that users tend to get caught in “information bubbles” where they only see ideas and news that reinforce their beliefs. For example, people who think that the earth is flat will see posts about the earth being flat. Ultimately, they will be convinced of their idea because virtually everything they read on social media is proving their point. Users are more likely to click on posts that support their ideas because of the so-called “confirmation bias.” Algorithms avoid showing users opposing views in order to get more clicks, which means more money for social media platforms.

Where is social media heading in the future?
Based on the current trends and recent developments, there is clear evidence that social media is meant to stay. Users are quickly adopting new types of social media with specific functionalities, such as Snapchat and TikTok. The integration of emerging technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality will be the main drivers for years to come.