Module 2: What are Social Media Anyway?

What are social media?

Before we get too far into all of the various uses of social media for emergency management, public health and crisis communications, it is important to define what is meant by “social media”.

The formal definition:  Social media allow for lay users to collectively author, moderate and share information free from the restrictions of traditional information dissemination. (See below for more definitions.)

This pic above (I can’t find who created it give attribution) was widely circulated and discussed because it so aptly describes not only the various social channels, but the culture of those channels–all with the idea of a person discussing a mundane activity of eating a donut. The funniest contrast is between the direct statement made on Twitter: “I’m eating a donut” versus LinkedIn’s “My skills include donut eating.” The author gets in a joke at Google’s expense as well. Google’s social network has not lived up to their expectations.

What does this mean for first responders?

The concept of sharing is an important distinction between social media versus traditional media. Although the above graphic doesn’t depict this component explicitly, people expect two-way conversations and interactions on these networks…thus the name “social” media. Furthermore, users can choose to follow very specific kinds of content.  For example, if  a person watches a traditional news broadcast they are going to hear what the producers have decided is important: If a tornado goes through three towns and one of them has some really dramatic images, you can guess where the media is going to focus. In contrast, social networks will provide hyper local information, generated by the people in the community that have been impacted, are responding and volunteering.

How would the above graphic look after a crisis? Experience shows us that people share almost instantly what is happening to them. (See also the screen capture from one of the spontaneous Massachusetts 2011 Tornado facebook pages.)

This user generated content can be turned into situational awareness information for responding organizations.  Response personnel can monitor these networks to determine what the public sees, hears, feels, etc about the situation–as well as ask and answer questions.

For those of you unfamiliar with the terminology of social media here are some more general definitions:

  • Blog: A self-published diary or commentary on a particular topic that may allow visitors to post responses, reactions, or comments. (Hint–this website is a blog) 
  •  Post: Content an individual shares on a social media site or the act of publishing content on a site.
  • Profile: Information that a user provides about himself or herself on a social networking site. (e.g. I’m eating a donut”)
  • Social Networks: Platforms where users can create profiles, share information, and socialize with others using a range of technologies: twitter, facebook, foursquare, instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, Pinterest, LastFM, G+.
  • Wiki: a website whose users can add, modify, or delete its content via a web browser using a simplified markup language or a rich-text editor. Wikis are powered by wiki software. Most are created collaboratively. Wikis can be community websites and intranets, for example. Some permit control over different functions (levels of access). For example, editing rights may permit changing, adding or removing material. Others may permit access without enforcing access control. Other rules may also be imposed for organizing content. [1] Source: Wikipedia: “Wiki”

More Definitions

Here are a few definitions, as well as some examples, of the popular networking sites. Keep in mind, however, that there are numerous social sharing sites in use, and new ones continually come online.

Twitter is a real-time information network and micro-blogging service that enables its users to send and receive small bursts of information called Tweets. Each Tweet is 140 characters long, but can also include links to photos, videos and conversations.  The service has over 140 million active users as of 2012, generating over 340 millions tweets daily and handling over 1.6 billion search queries per day. Unregistered users can read the tweets, and registered users can post tweets through the website interface or on other twitter client applications, Short Message Service (SMS), or a range of apps for mobile devices.

Facebook: The best definition comes from Wikipedia (itself a collaborative social site) Facebook is a social networking service and website launched in February 2004. As of May 2012, Facebook has over 900 million active users, more than half of them using mobile devices. Users must register before using the site, after which they may create a personal profile, add other users as friends, and exchange messages, including automatic notifications when they update their profile. Facebook allows any users who declare themselves to be at least 13 years old to become registered users of the site. Similar sites include MySpace and Google +. Source: Wikipedia “Facebook”

YouTube is a free video-sharing website which allows users to upload, view and share videos. The company uses Adobe Flash Video and HTML5 technology to display a wide variety of user-generated video content. According to YouTube’s current stats, sixty hours of video are uploaded every minute, or one hour of video is uploaded to the site every second. Over 4 billion videos are viewed a day! YouTube videos can easily be embedded on other social sites including blogs and Facebook and linked to via Twitter. Other video sharing sites include Vimeo, vidiLife, Revver, DailyMotion, Break, and  Metacafe just to name a few. Source: Wikipedia “YouTube” and Statistics-YouTube

Flickr:  An image hosting website acquired by Yahoo! in 2005. This photo sharing service is widely used by bloggers to host images that they embed in blogs and social media. Photos and videos can be accessed from Flickr without the need to register an account but an account must be made in order to upload content onto the website. The company also has an app for use by mobile users. Other photo sharing sites include: SmugMug, Photobucket, SlickPic, dotPhoto, and Webshots, just to name a few.[1]  Source: Wikipedia “Flickr” And


Here are the some of the best resources specifically for government agencies.
  • Facebook for Government: looks at the many unique and interesting ways government agencies are using the Facebook Page platform. We highlight some of the best examples of how to optimize your government Page to be a useful and popular tool for constituents and Facebook users.
  • Although this site is by and for Federal employees, it has some very useful content.
  • IACP Center for Social Media In partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, the IACP launched its Center for Social Media in October 2010. The goal of the initiative is to build the capacity of law enforcement to use social media to prevent and solve crimes, strengthen police-community relations, and enhance services. IACP’s Center for Social Media serves as a clearinghouse of information and no-cost resources to help law enforcement personnel develop or enhance their agency’s use of social media and integrate Web 2.0 tools into agency operations.
  • Social Media at CDC The Center for Disease Control was one of the first Federal agencies to use social media and continues to set the standard for excellence. This site includes links to toolkit and many other helpful resources.

Your Turn!


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