Insufficient Terms

At the beginning of our April Hemispheric News on One Prime Plus, Andrew discussed the issue of web apps and their user experience (or lack thereof); I share his opinion. Andrew raised a great point that many people may not know or care about the difference between web and native apps, as an equivalent tool within a browser may offer all the functionality that they need.

Although we’ve been living with digital technologies for decades, many of the issues and misunderstandings that people experience are due to insufficient language. In the world of computers, terms can be either overly complicated or too simple. Consider the common problem of terms and conditions when you register for an online service like a web app or social network: included privacy policies are presented with endless, impenetrable jargon, even for those who are comfortable with technology; and companies that try to do the right thing by providing a shorter alternative version of their terms may oversimplify the document to the point that the text is condescending or no longer accurate.

It’s said that lawmakers struggle to keep up with technological changes and that by the time they’ve adapted policies to fit them, they’re either weak or things have moved on. Again, I blame insufficient language and I propose that the following term is the worst offender for insufficiency and ambiguity and the most controversial web app: social media.

Social media, for all of their power in enabling global communication and positive connection, continue to cause harm online and discombobulate policymakers. What if all the issues in dealing social media come down to the fact that the term is insufficient and meaningless, failing to describe the relevant services at all?

Let’s break things down. Looking at the Australian Government’s Be Connected resources on its eSafety website, the following definition of social media is given:

Social media is a collective term used to describe any website or smart device app that can be used to share (or socialise) information.

That information can be made up of text, pictures, sound or video (different types of media), and it can be sent from your computer or device to one or more other people by using a special website or app.

There are many different types of social media websites and apps that are owned by big companies, including some of the best known: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Addressing the term ‘media’ first, media ecologists such as Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman argued that media and technology are synonymous: any tool that enhances a human’s ability to achieve something is a medium, which could include anything from a spoon to a traffic light to a website, or even natural phenomena such as light. A medium contains or facilitates (and influences) content. Looking at the definition above, the term ‘special website’ is vague and ridiculous, and it could be argued that a website in its general sense could be a form of social media, as it presents information that is made up of text, pictures, sound or video. When you make a website or add something to an existing one, you are sharing (or socialising) information with others.

Now, let’s turn to the word ‘social’. I argue that in this context, the word is tautological. Anything that a human does in conveying information may be regarded as social; when you communicate something, whether orally, in written form or through facial expressions, either to a seen or invisible audience, you are committing a social act. With regard to media (or technology), is the term ‘social’ even new? What other kinds of social media might have existed before digital technology? Consider the following:

  • letters — maintaining a friendship with a pen pal by exchanging written messages;
  • phone calls — using the medium of the telephone to be social using only your voice;
  • television, radio and cinema — gathering with friends, family and even strangers around a screen or speaker, whether at home or elsewhere, to enjoy a specific medium and its content; and
  • theatrical and musical performances — gathering with others, as above, but hearing and seeing the socialised information of actors or musicians live on a stage.

I could go on… all of these are media are social, both in the transmission and reception of information and in the interactive sharing of it with others. If people try to use a term such as ‘social network’ for these services instead, isn’t that even more ridiculous? Wouldn’t a social network consist of everyone you’ve ever met in your life, rather than one digital tool? ‘Social networking’ is what it means to be a human being.

Many people describe ‘social media’ (in the digital sense) as things that are new. They also assert that only young people get them innately and grow up as ‘digital natives’—understanding their use and potential before or more deeply than older generations. Both of these points are false. While ‘social media’ may be new, they are only relatively new. Facebook, for example, is almost 20 years old. People who first used it as children then are adults now. On the matter of younger people as ‘digital natives’, while they may adapt more quickly to navigating digital interfaces, they often fail to realise the implications of their technological use and how their personal information may be handled.

If we were to focus on teaching digital media literacy and arming ourselves with more powerful and descriptive terminology, rather than submitting to a kind of euphemistic Newspeak, global understanding of technology may be enhanced.

What could be an alternative term for ‘social media’? Given their reliance on data and algorithms over anything that’s qualitatively human or social, how about one of the following suggestions?

  • Human-fed data communication banks
  • Algorithmically-driven advertorial networks
  • Personally-targeted publishing companies

They’re not the prettiest terms but they give you a much better idea of what’s going on than ‘social media’ does. How would people think about the information that they add to these web apps and services if they were labelled differently?

I offer this article not as a negative piece about social media—I enjoy using them—but to emphasise that our inability to define them is what hinders our ability to moderate them.

This post was originally written in April 2022 for Hemispheric News; subscribe at the Patreon site One Prime Plus to receive this monthly newsletter and other benefits that are linked to the Hemispheric Views podcast.