‘Users of the World, Unite!’; a step in the right direction?

On: October 11, 2013
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The increasingly widespread use of social media has given rise to new interactional conditions and the creation of new discursive spaces. These developments also provide firms and organizations with new communicative opportunities and new ways of generating profit. Given the newness of social media, there is still a relatively scarce selection of academic literature that strives to formulate a coherent theory relating these media to use in company-related settings. I recently came across an often cited article that tries to contribute to the formulation of such a theory; Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein’s ‘Users of the world, unite!’. In this article, Kaplan and Haenlein attempt to provide a brief account of the nature and genealogy of social media. They also analyze both the social and the media aspect of social media by drawing on concepts from sociology and media theory respectively. Furthermore, based on these concepts, they seek to offer companies some basic strategies for efficiently using social media. Here, I’d like to evaluate to what extent Kaplan and Haenlein succeed in mapping out a useful theory.

Let me start off by underlining the academic relevance of the article. Given the popularity of social media, there is a definite need for the theorization of frameworks that can help us better understand them and their value in relation to (commercial) organizations and institutions. Kaplan and Haimlein, relying heavily on sociological and media-related theory, definitely aim to device such a framework. There are, however, some fundamental problems that attenuate the usefulness of their text.

First of all, Kaplan and Haimlein make heavy use of the concept of Web 2.0, even designating it to be the catalyst behind the conception of social media (“for the purpose of our article, we consider Web 2.0 as the platform for the evolution of Social Media”). The notion of Web 2.0, however, is not without its problems. As Alan Liu states in an interview with Geert Lovink, the idea of Web 2.0 as a teleological process and/or a singular unit of analysis is flawed; many of the different technologies and practices that are conceptualized as characteristic of Web 2.0 are actually moving in different, often contradictory directions. Furthermore, Liu explains how the term Web 2.0 is often a shortcut used to ascribe web-related changes to technological innovations rather than engaging with the deeper cultural, economic and political structures that help shape our technologies. In other words, by equating the rise of social media with a fickle concept like Web 2.0, Kaplan and Haimlein forego the underlying sociological, economic and interactional conditions that have informed the development of social media.

Secondly, their use of media theory frames social media in a rather one-dimensional fashion. They analyze media according to their media richness (i.e. their capability to reproduce information) and the degree of social presence they allow for (see the table below). The claims they make, however, are far too general; they simply identify social networking sites, for example, as having a medium level of social presence and media richness. This is far too fatalistic a reading, as social networking sites allow for a myriad of different interactional formats. Consider the variety of interactions possible on Facebook, each with its own set of rituals and particularities (chatting, tagging photos, participating in groups, (de)friending, using VoIP applications, commenting, et cetera). The rigid concepts of media richness and social presence, then, do not do justice to the heterogeneous communicative spectrum of social media.

Kaplan & Haemlein's classification of social media by social presence/media richness and self-presentation/self-disclosure.

Finally (and arguably most importantly) Kaplan and Haimlein rely heavily on the work of sociologist Erving Goffman. They theorize the social in social media through Goffman’s understanding of self-presentation and self-disclosure. This is a markedly micro-sociological perspective of which the scope of analysis is aimed at interpersonal communication and interaction rituals. Notably, Goffman’s body of work has been criticized for understating (and sometimes even ignoring) the existence of organizations and institutions (Ritzer 2012: 384). This makes one wonder if Goffman’s sociology is an apt paradigm for connecting firms to social media, and if there are no better alternatives in social theory (Bourdieu’s theory of fields, Lovink and Rossiter’s idea of organized networks, and Castells’ work on the network society and communication power come to mind).

Kaplan and Haenlein’s article is born out of a commendable vision. It recognizes the importance of finding conceptual tools that can lead to a better understanding of social media use in commercial (or governmental) settings. The specific theoretical frameworks they choose to make use of, however, leave a lot to be desired. When studying a phenomenon as intricate as social media, categorizing it according to inflexible terms is insufficient. Also, when aiming to theorize the social dimension of social media, using a conceptual footing that emphasizes micro-interactions but underplays the role of meso/macro-structures like institutions and organizations seems too limited an approach (especially when the aim of the article is to establish an account of social media use in a commercial/organizational rather than personal context). The article is thus rightfully rooted in the notion that theoretical frameworks can help us make sense of social media in a variety of settings, but ultimately lacks an exhaustive theoretical foundation.

References:

Ritzer, George. Sociological Theory, eighth edition. New York: McGraw Hill, 2012.

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