Social media is the overall term given to a range of services on the web such as Facebook or Twitter, but basically these services are a way for people to communicate online be it via the short 140 character messages of Twitter, or the longer more visible photographic evidence of Facebook. With current research saying that over two thirds of the internet users having accounts on at least one of the social media sites, there is every chance that you indeed already know what we are talking about, and that most people that have internet access have social media accounts as well.
At the time of writing, Facebook has become the most popular forum with over 750 million members. Imagine what an amazing reach this has into the lives of people all over the world!
Part of its attraction is that people can choose how to use the forum.
The premise of only connecting with people who are your friends lets people do many things, such as catching up with people they have lost contact with for whatever reason, and seeing what extended family are up to on regular basis.
But by far the most important advantage of Facebook is that people can share current information with friends and family that they see regularly. It makes contact with others easier than ever before, whether young people are communicating a meeting place for dinner or grandparents are seeing photos and chatting with their grandchildren in another state or another country.
Facebook, the business, knows a lot of information about YOU. How do they know this? Because the information you put online is essentially 'permanent' and 'global', even if you are only wanting your selected friends to see it, the computer systems of Facebook can also 'see' it. Because the online information is in an easily 'searchable' format – which is why we find search engines such as Google very convenient – the connections you make with people online allow the systems to construct a mathematical model known as a 'social graph'. This graph – which when drawn as a picture is lines connecting between different points – represents all the connections and interests that you have chosen to write down on Facebook. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_graph )
For example, you may have chosen to let your friend A see information "a" and your friend B see the anecdote "b", and you know A and B do not know each other – but on the social graph that can be constructed, A and B will be connected through knowing you. Over time new connections expand the graph and allows targeted information to be directed at you and your friends.
People tend to be more trusting of information and recommendations provided by their friends and acquaintances than through any source of more impersonal information. For example, "10 of your friends went a local coffee shop in the past week and rated it 5 stars". This type of information places Facebook in a very unique position to market to people, and to provide information about you in a way that way the marketers have dreamed of for years, but have been unable to achieve in other media. This is the reason that Facebook has so many industry pundits fawning over the company. Facebook is leading the social media charge and wants to a big part of everyone's life.
Twitter takes this 'sharing everything' to another level by sharing 'tweets' with the world – potentially. At least, if you join up to Twitter, others have the choice to add your 'tweets' to the stream of messages that they are interested in. This is known as "following". Of course, writing tweets doesn't mean that anyone will read them!
People can 'tweet' short messages about anything and everything. Sometimes it is just trivial information, of the type you might chat to your best mate to, while waiting at the water cooler or travelling on the train. Sometimes it is of world-shattering importance, such as those poor teenagers in Norway recently, who were at that time being machine-gunned and were asking for help from friends and emergency services.
You may wonder why this is different from the 'status updates' on Facebook (which are a direct copy of 'tweets'), or even just SMS on a mobile phone: the difference is the number of people who can be messaged at any one time (as mentioned, presuming that a proportion of them actually read the message).
It is this instantaneous ability to share information with a wide audience that has allowed some significant world events to occur recently that may not have otherwise occurred. The recent events in Egypt where the government was overturned has been attributed to the ability of the population to get their opinions to a wide audience and to rally as many people as possible to a common cause. In fact the Government's actions in Egypt of blocking Facebook and Twitters' websites at a national level serves to underline the emphasis these services had in the political movement.
Despite the positives of social media, there are downsides and pitfalls to be aware of. Since tweets, photos and status updates are posting content online that can be easily found by almost anyone, posting this content is effectively the same as publishing an article for the world to see, and knowing that it is widely viewable.
Privacy is a blurred line in social media, and it takes vigilance to protect your privacy. Children and teenagers are particularly at risk of not understanding these risks, and parents need to understand the risks themselves as well. The overall key is to be careful' about what is posted, and to acknowledge the fact that online isn't private. There have been recent examples where people have lost jobs, or been turned away from job interviews because of embarrassing content posted on social media sites.
People should be aware that content can be found by anyone who cares to look. Removing online content completely is a very difficult if not impossible task once it has gone public, and once again high profile people such as US senators, have got into major trouble over content posted to social media. Publicly available information can be a blessing and a curse.
Everyone has a different view on how social media should be used. Different cultures will use the same tool very differently. Businesses will use the ability to communicate widely to sell more products.
Social media has changed the way that internet is used on a day to day basis. The web is no longer purely about machines and buying things, but its now about connection with people, and that is the monumental shift. Now that the web is about people the world truly is available 24 hours a day seven days a week.
We as Christians have the ability to share our faith with the world that needs Christ. It is now easy for each of us to show our friends what we believe, if we make the choice to do so. From a ministry point of view it allows us reach into places that may not be able to regularly go. There is endless opportunity, and as time goes on we need to learn how to leverage it to the best.
If you are interested in finding out more, follow malsharman on Twitter, or add Malcolm Sharman as a friend on Facebook .
Malcolm Sharman has been fascinated by technology for as long as he can remember, and is currently a software engineer at a large technology company. He lives on the Gold Coast with his wife and son.