Scholarly article on topic 'The Limits of Social Media: What Social Media Can Be, and What We Should Hope They Never Become'

The Limits of Social Media: What Social Media Can Be, and What We Should Hope They Never Become Academic research paper on "Media and communications"

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Social Media + Society
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Academic research paper on topic "The Limits of Social Media: What Social Media Can Be, and What We Should Hope They Never Become"


SI: Manifesto social media society

The Limits of Social Media: What Social Media Can Be, and What We Should Hope They Never Become

Sam Srauy

Social Media + Society April-June 2015: 1-3 © The Author(s) 2015 DOI: 10.1177/2056305115578676



Social media are among many tools that people use to articulate culture. However, it must be remembered that social media are websites that afford community building regardless of the morality, social benefit, or social detriment of the communities that get built. At their core, social media sites are products created by their respective corporations with the intent of monetizing the labor of their users. The values that these sites might offer are dependent on the users and the users' ability to claim some social benefit. In this regard, the author argues that social media can be beneficial spaces where society articulates and records culture "only if' users can maintain that use despite corporate actors' efforts to monetize users' labor.


manifesto, monetization of user labor, social value

Social media can be among many media tools by which we articulate our culture. They can be ways in which we socialize and share who we aspire to be with those who are closest to us. Social media can be these and so much more. But what they also can be are ways through which corporations monitor us for marketing purposes, exploiting our fears and desires (Andrejevic, 2011; Bilton, 2014; boyd & Hargittai, 2010; Facebook, 2013; Fish & McKnight, 2014; Gillespie, 2014; Ippolita, Lovink, & Rossiter, 2009; Lilley, Grodzinsky, & Gumbus, 2013). Of course, there are other ways in which social media are used to exploit us (see Hill, 2011). But addressing corporate marketing specifically, I believe we should hope social media never become merely ways through which we are marketed with no benefit in return. If we must live in a corporate media-dominated world, at least we ought to claim some social benefit.

What Social Media Can Be

It should come as no surprise that for some of us, such as myself, social media are tools that can potentially benefit society. This is, after all, the inaugural issue of Social Media + Society. If we are generous and optimistic, we can imagine social media as a liberating forum for self-expression or a medium that might, in its own way, usher in a more democratic form of content distribution or civic participation (Burgess & Green, 2013; Caren & Gaby, 2011; Iskander,

2011; Johnson, Zhang, Bichard, & Seltzer, 2011; Kaye, 2011; Kreiss, 2012; Neumayer & Raffl, 2008). Groups can form and freely associate (Iskander, 2011; Johnson et al., 2011; Oiarzabal, 2012; Parks, 2011). People can discuss ideas with others in ways and with such speed that a couple of decades earlier would have seemed far-fetched.

Social media can be places where self-expression occurs (DiMicco & Millen, 2007; Gilpin, 2011; Zhao, Grasmuck, & Martin, 2008). However, it can also be a place where the harsher tides of identity politics can define an "us" and a "them." For instance, boyd (2012) found that white teens fled MySpace in the early 2000s for Facebook in an instance of white-flight when black teens started to join the service. Those white teens felt that MySpace became a "virtual ghetto" because of the influx of profile pages belonging to black bodies (boyd, 2012). Today, services like Facebook Groups can also be a place where, for example, ethnic groups gather to form communities (Oiarzabal, 2012; Parks, 2011). Or Facebook Groups can become easy places for people to engage in identity tourism or as captive audiences for advertisers (Grosser, 2011; Srauy, 2012). Social media might be

Oakland University, Rochester, MI, USA Corresponding Author:

Sam Srauy, Department of Communication and Journalism, Oakland University, 316 Wilson Hall, 2200 N. Squirrel Road, Rochester, MI 483094401, USA.


ice) CD® Creative Commons CC-BY-NC: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 License ^^^■sSMD^B ( which permits non-commercial use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (

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spaces for social protest where divergent political voices living in oppressive regimes might find a forum (Caren & Gaby, 2011; Iskander, 2011; Marichal, 2013; Neumayer & Raffl, 2008). Or social media may simply become spaces where divergent brand loyalties are contested and played out under the watchful eyes of corporations all too eager to exploit our desire to share our lives with our friends and families (Bilton, 2014; Facebook, 2013; Fish & McKnight, 2014; Gillespie, 2014; Hansson, Wrangmo, & Soilen, 2013; Lilley et al., 2013).

Social media sites are all of these and none of these at the same time. What they are, at their core, are websites with features that afford community building in one fashion or another regardless of the communities that get built (see boyd, 2011; boyd & Ellison, 2007). That is the take-away and the charge for scholars and users as we study and engage with social media—social media are nothing without users (see Burgess & Green, 2013; Jenkins, 2013); however, we as a society ought to be mindful as we determine how, in the future, social media are useful to us. Whatever they are today is a result of how we choose to use them. Whatever they become is also the result of our engagement with them.

What We Should Hope They Never Become

Social media are refractions, tools to record a particular user base's moment in time. Yet, social media are also products created by their respective corporations with the intent of monetizing our labor (e.g. posts, comments, "likes," and content we create) through market research, advertisements, or our content (Facebook, 2013; Tumblr, 2014; Twitter, 2014; YouTube, 2010). For all our hopes and fears about what social media are or could be, they are first and foremost a product or website designed to monetize us in some form or another (see Fish & McKnight, 2014; Gillespie, 2014).

Perhaps, this is the crux of what we should hope social media never become—a way for corporate actors merely to collect the most sensitive information about us so that we may be advertised to. The emphasis of my claim is on the word "merely." We cannot fully control how corporate actors use our information all of the time. Since there is the implicit deal that these "free" services come at a cost to our privacy, we can at least extract some social and cultural benefit—presuming we assume that advertising has no social or cultural good—from our social media use.

In a way, the perception that we tend to have about social media mirrors and refracts what the perception of television offered us a generation ago (see Hilliard, 1958). Social media, such as television, can be an educator, an equalizer, an exploiter, a social unifier, a social divider, and so on. Of course, social media are forms of media that afford some positive uses and some questionable actions. Social media can be all of these and none of these at once. Our task as a society, then, is to ensure that some of their uses enable the

"better angels of our nature"1 while avoiding—to the extent that we can—our unfettered exploitation by capital.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

1. I borrowed this quote with apologies, from Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, 1861.


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Author Biography

Sam Srauy (PhD, Temple University) is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Oakland University. His research interests include the roles that race and economics play in identity construction in various forms of new media.