Social Media

As of July 2020, TikTok has about 80-100 million users in the US as reports do vary on this. TikTok users are also ‘growing up’ according to Adweek as older American users have started using the platform. According to AdWeek, the percentage of U.S.-based TikTok users age 18-24 fell from 41.1% in January to 35.3% in April. During that same time, the 25- to 34-year-old users rose from 22.4% to 27.4%, and users 35-44 grew from 13.9% to 17.1%. TikTok users have been vocal about their views about it being banned. Social media opinion (on Twitter and TikTok) are probably the best proxies we have for quickly assessing what everyday users as well as influencers think about the ban. First of all, it is clear that a of vocal number of TikTok users think the ban is partially (or even fully) in retaliation for how some influencers have been making fun of President Trump on the platform. Many tweets single out the viral TikTok influencer Sarah Cooper who has become famous worldwide for lip-synced parodies of President Trump as the reason for the ban. There has been a backlash on Twitter whereby users are saying because Trump thinks  Sarah Cooper is ‘mean’, he is banning TikTok to stop ‘mean girls’.

Many TikTok users have been deeply frustrated by the ban as the platform has become extremely important to their everyday self-expression. There are many post by users documenting how they never thought the videos would be watched by anyone, but they actually became extremely popular content creators. Others have made clear TikTok has been critical to their political activism, such as BlackLivesMatter; in my own work, I have been studying TikTok posts posted live from BlackLivesMatter protests. Ultimately, we need to also remember that TikTok, like YouTube, enables content creators to make money from the platform. And there are many whose majority income is from TikTok. These users are perhaps the most worried as their livelihoods are literally at state. They are the ones of the live streaming and trying to migrate followers to Instagram and YouTube to protect their incomes. Everyday users are clearly upset, but as many users are from younger demographics are already used to migrating from on social media platform to the other. Instagram’s reels product could be where a migration to occurs.

Banning Tik Tok is a data privacy issue, but is, of course, a deeply political decision as well. Data privacy is an important issue and there has been increased awareness in the US of the use of our data in unintended ways after Cambridge Analytica and the Zuckerberg public hearings. Asking a Chinese company to divest from a company collecting US personal data is not unusual in the US. But, the ban on TikTok is of course more than a data privacy argument. It is clearly political and part of the technology wars between the US and China that are bundled with the new Cold War between the countries. There is a geopolitical line between embassy closures and TikTok being banned. TikTok could be allowed to quietly divest from ByteDance TikTok’s parent company to a US company but this ban has clearly not been quiet. Indeed, Microsoft’s interest in TikTok  could have been approved by President Trump early on if data privacy was the central issue at play here. However, US media is  widely reporting that talks between Microsoft and ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company have been stalled as President Trump has said he won’t allow the acquisition.

I think that Twitter’s announced change to enable users to hide replies to tweets will likely allow users to have more control over their conversations on Twitter. In my research, I have seen far right groups post racial hate as replies to tweets of users from racial and ethnic minority groups. Allowing hide and mute functions could provide these types of users a level of content moderation control in terms of how their profile is being presented to the world. Of course, this does not abrogate Twitter and other social media platforms from actively looking for content that needs to be moderated and part of the broader movements towards platform accountability have put pressure on social media platforms to take charge and make an effort to do their part in terms of promoting healthier online communicative spaces. I think giving increased options to users to be able to moderate what sort of content are publicly displayed in their profiles is important and can be contextualized within larger privacy debates around social media platforms.

There is always a potential for features that provide levels of user-level moderation and editorial control to skew how users are being portrayed. Since its founding, Twitter has been seen as a very open, sometimes ‘Wild West’ space of the mainstream Internet. The good, the bad, and the ugly are easily seen in viral hashtags and reply chains to prominent ‘verified’ users.

Part of the attraction of Twitter, and something I note in my book Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age, is that users have always liked the function of being able to tweet at whoever they want and to be able to see those replies there. There is, of course, some empowerment in this ability to interact with anyone on the platform. If Tweet streams are being curated, this can also present a particular side of the reception of their tweets.

However, just because replies are hidden or @-mentions blocked does not mean that users can not call out the inaccuracy or injustice in a tweet. Tweets can still be mentioned within other tweets and I have not heard plans to change this functionality.

Of course, any moderation has its challenges, but many users have faced significant issues in terms of abusive content in replies and mentions and creating a seamless experience towards being able to moderate the sorts of content that are associated with your tweet will be seen as a really welcome change for some users. I think it is really easy to focus on the fact that curation can present a particular reception of a tweet, but we often forget some of the racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and other extremely hateful content that can appear in replies to tweets and @-mentions. Creating a balance is clearly going to be challenging for Twitter. I am sure that the agents of certain verified users such as some politicians and celebrities will use this feature to maintain a particular image within reply streams that fits their client’s brand or image. But, on the other hand, celebrities that are ethnic and racial minorities can use this functionality to manage racist trolls.

In terms of Twitter’s initiatives towards monitoring its own ‘health’, I think changes such as this are part of Twitter trying to be a more accountable social media platform and taking notice that, again as my book Twitter argues, the platform has become an everyday form of communication in terms of social, political, and economic issues. As such, it is crucially important that the platform is accountable for fake news, bots, and extreme content that affects the health of Twitter. For example, Twitter’s move to ban political ads likely partially comes from a feeling that such ads were creating unhealthy levels of targeting and polarization.

Ultimately, I think content moderation, both in terms of machine-based algorithms as well as human-based methods are something that Twitter needs to continue to invest in to be able to monitor content given that it has become part of everyday conversation as well as profound conversation. Many turn to Twitter as their first port of call for the public broadcasting of their opinions, given the much stronger privacy controls of platforms such as Facebook that limit who you can engage with. However, these opinions can lead to bullying and have real impacts on the lives of users (including bullying leading to suicides). Giving users methods that are akin to privacy settings on platforms such as Facebook may provide some users much greater levels of control over their experience on Twitter and be a game changer for these users.

As digital technologies become more pervasive in our everyday lives, some individuals, communities, and groups are taking active measures towards digital silence. The argument of information overloading has been particularly charged in terms of debates around youth, which has sometimes led to moral panics around the topic.

Social media platforms are, by design, formulated to increase volume, rather than fostering silence. Moreover, the economics of social platforms are built around augmenting engagement, rather than silencing it. So-called ‘cell phone addiction’ has been studied for years now and such studies generally feature respondents who report positive aspects of withdrawing from their phones for some period.

The logic is not dissimilar to moves such as #MeatlessMonday, but, instead of providing a temporary break from meat, it’s from ‘normal’ digital usage. However, as my experiences with my students show, this is not a straightforward task. A decade ago, I used to ask students in a seminar class of mine, In The Facebook Age at Bowdoin College, to see how long they could go without a digital device and then to write about their experiences. Some students really enjoyed the experience and others felt it had major repercussions on their social lives.

Today, the pervasiveness of digital technologies into our lives is much more than it was in 2009 with everything from payments to health applications residing in social media and smartphones. Our phones sometimes literally even unlock doors. Therefore, even if iOS alerts shame us of excessive screen time, we generally quickly ignore them. At least we are losing our keys less often…

The question of enhancing diversity in big data and computational social science is fundamentally important. I think the importance of diversity in computational areas is often ignored and, as scholars, this is at our peril.

First of all, we often have biases in how we interpret data. Specifically, bias due to particular subject positions (e.g. a researcher’s position coming from a dominant group). This often marginalizes minority voices in big data projects or just ‘others’ them.

Second, how data is analyzed, even if it is aggregated or difficult to discern identities, can be biased by subject positions. For example, we treat social media data as able to tell stories, but researchers often are not looking for diverse stories or diverse research questions. So, diverse stories need to actively be looked for.

Third, we have a general lack of diversity in terms of the types of data sets we generally collect and APIs do not easily facilitate efforts to showcase underrepresented groups. In social media, data collected is often based around a particular hashtag or categories, which may not represent racial/ethnic or other diversity well. Again, racial/ethnic, gender, socioeconomic and other diversity needs to be actively worked on.

Ultimately, it is important to understand that there is a lack of diversity in these areas and it is also critical for students and faculty from diverse areas to have literacy in big data and computational research methods.

As recent government hearings in the US and Europe around data privacy have underscored, there are deep consequences to the types of data being circulated. Moreover, the decisions that algorithms make tend to be based on what privileged people (e.g. the software developers designing the algorithms) see the world as. This often is to the detriment of diverse views (which are often seen as threatening).

After 11 years of 140-character tweets, Twitter decided to double this to 280 characters from November 2017.

Before rolling the change out to the general public, Twitter began trialing this “feature” with a select group of users (Watson 2017), though initial testing suggested that only 5 per cent of the group opted to use over 140 characters in their tweets (Newton 2017). And critics (e.g., Silver 2017) argue that this will drown out Twitter timelines, compromising the platform’s uniquely succinct form of social communication.

Our contemporary use of Twitter – in part a social, political, and economic information network – has evolved over more than a decade. So it may be some years before the impact of the 280-character expansion can be evaluated. Given that our behaviors on all social media platforms are interlinked, it may be that Twitter is answering a call for individuals to express themselves more fully, though in the context of these platforms more broadly, 280 characters is still relatively terse.

Ultimately, if Twitter continues to be viewed as a platform for bursts of communication rather than in-depth, fully formed dialogue, it is likely that the increased character count will not have a substantive change to the platform. Only time will tell if the increased character count impacts significantly on people’s use of Twitter.

Social media is heavily influenced by algorithms. For example, the Facebook feed algorithm, from what we know about it, is based on what you and your friends are liking, posting, and doing on the platform (and perhaps even ‘people like you’ that Facebook is data mining). Many social media algorithms are designed around homophily. And algorithms theoretically are value neutral. If someone consumes and produces criminal content, the algorithm will try to be helpful and guide the user to relevant criminal content. The algorithms are just following what they are programmed to do.  algorithms can equally encourage content around positive civic responsibility, if a user has displayed a preference in that direction.

To be critical about algorithms, we do have acknowledge the advantages and disadvantages of algorithm proliferation. For example, some algorithms are designed for safeguarding and this can be a real positive. There might be algorithmically-based filters for Internet searching or video delivery specific to kids for example. If a child has a profile on Netflix which is specifically set to Netflix’s child setting, then by the algorithm’s definition, they are not supposed to receive content that is age inappropriate. This tends to work in practice. Though, if content is inappropriately categorized, the algorithm would of course just follow its rule-based rubric instructions and would guide kids to inappropriate content as well. So humans are very much part of this process and if errors occur, then not having humans in the loop can partially be attributable to some of the issues of whether algorithms break down in these instances.

Ultimately, the algorithms driving social media are what are called ‘black box algorithms’. These can be defined as algorithms that are generally proprietary, and which are open-source. The algorithm is meant to be private in terms of its design and operation and documentation is not made publicly available, nor is data made available in terms of the decisions made by the algorithm. In this way, black box algorithms are also similar in that we can only infer particular aspects of the algorithm based on observing the algorithm’s behavior ‘in the wild’.

At cafes, bus stops, and other public places, I hear people lament about what they think is a rude behavior and that there are no manners in an age of social media. Etiquette has been enormously important to societies historically and not always for the right reasons (like marginalizing individuals or groups of people – especially ethnic and racial minorities). The sociologist Norbert Elias spent much of his book The civilizing process investigating etiquette and argued that the development of etiquette is part of a historical ‘process’. Using the ‘right’ fork was not a random thing. So too are practices of etiquette on social media.


Etiquette is a reflection of social norms, class, and other demographic factors. As such, it can divide people or create hierarchies. Some social processes were more elite in the past (like diary writing or eating in a restaurant). As social activities become more democratic, practices of etiquette can do so as well. Think of it this way: if someone drops food on the floor during a meal at home and then picks it up and eats it, only those there know about it; but if such behaviors are in tweets, Instagram photos, etc., the action has a much wider audience. For some, the five-second rule applies and for others, such behavior is repugnant. Again, these responses have a lot to do with our social, cultural, and economic background.


Thinking about etiquette can be relevant to understandings of social media production and consumption. Ultimately, etiquette is socially constructed and what is considered normal and acceptable varies based on a variety of socioeconomic and cultural factors. And these normative constructions can shape social media habits – from deciding whether using social media apps during a date is acceptable to what types of positive and negative things we say about friends, family, and colleagues. Even whether we post a video of our kid comically falling down can partly be influenced by questions of etiquette. In addition, the acceptability of creeping or fake ‘catfish’ Facebook profiles also partly depends on social media etiquette. Certain perceived notions of what one is ‘expected’ to do in a situation or what is civilized – the latter drawing from eating etiquette for example – are important to reflect on. Though, like in history, etiquette is a contested space and has politics of inclusion and exclusion.


Ultimately, social media has made social interactions more public – what has traditionally been private has become increasingly public. In addition, social media lets us interact with much larger audiences. Neither is inherently good or bad, but a part of changes in social communication. I also do not think we have become less polite. Rather, the venom and vitriol we have always had throughout time and is very much one part of human nature now has a very public audience that we did not have before. Or, in other words, social media is not making us into this or that; we were already there…

A brief review of:  Hampton, K.N., Rainie, L., Lu, W., Shin, I., & Purcell, K. (2014). “Social Media and the Cost of Caring.” Pew Research Center, Washington, DC.

Hampton et al.’s (2014) Pew-sponsored survey explores the question of social media and stress levels and concludes that users of social media may experience elevated levels of stress as they become more aware of the stresses in other people’s lives – what they term ‘the cost of caring’. Their findings are consistent with academic social media literature. In my book, for example, I argue that social media, for some, functions as a social awareness system. We are kept aware of everything from the banal to the profound in terms of people we are close with as well as distant relations. There is reciprocity in this too as we share and update others of our life’s happenings. This awareness and sharing can have positive impacts on our psychosocial lives. Specifically, if we – in our very busy and increasingly individualized lives – become more social via social media, this could reduce our stress levels as sharing and more communal behaviors have historically been tied to better mental health. Moreover, social media may make some feel more connected (which has been found particularly true in rural settings for example). The sociologist Emile Durkheim found loneliness and social isolation to be major contributors to suicide rates. If social media is found by users to help their sociability, this could have real benefits to their social lives. However, if social media makes people feel more isolated or affects their self confidence, this could have negative effects. But, we have to remember there were similar debates with the telephone for example.


I agree with Hampton et al. that there is a common perception that social media users are gadget addicted stressed out people. There are of course individuals in this camp but they generally represent the exception rather than the rule. Rather, many laugh as they see pictures of new babies in the family on social media. Others share about what they are eating or what movie they just watched. Again, rather than stress inducing these forms of social communication can be stress reducing for some.


The cost of caring argument is interesting and it is understandable that as people become aware of, for example, deaths of more distant school friends that they would not have known about without social media, they may experience additional stress due to social media use.  My work on cancer patients for example has found that social media use can be very positive in connecting cancer patients. Increased social awareness can of course be double edged too.

After the horrific attacks on Charlie Hebdo in which 12 people were killed, many have turned to social media to express their feelings, show solidarity with the attack’s victims, or to produce/consume information regarding the attack. The emergence of #JeSuisCharlie on social media and the chanting of it at rallies around the world indicates how central social media has been as a public outlet during this crisis. Indeed, #JeSuisCharlie speaks to the larger point that crisis hashtags are built around a notion of ‘event society’ where social media activity can become part of a public sphere that rallies around events such as crises. However, though we consume and produce social media content in times of crisis, we often do not step back to reflect on our motivations for doing so nor do we question whether social media spaces bring us together or polarize us.

Individuals use social media in times of crisis for several reasons. In my work on Twitter use during Hurricane Sandy, I found that some users turn to social media as a form of ‘self therapy’, an outlet to communicate their anxieties or stresses during a crisis and to receive direct or indirect support. Individuals also turn to social media to produce and consume memes and other humorous content; this can also be a form of self therapy. Though one would not expect humor to be present in #JeSuisCharlie, it is. In homage to the cartoonists who were killed in the attack, some of the images within the hashtag use humor to both cope as well as attack the motives and means of the terrorists. For example, there are numerous cartoons that have been retweeted, which show masked terrorists being attacked by showers of pencils and pens or a gunman shooting a fountain pen and ink spilling out. Some of the most retweeted images include a pencil shoved into a machine gun and a pencil being attacked and then attacking a gunman after being sharpened.




Social media – especially Twitter – is used by many as source of information. Important news stories are retweeted and friends and followers engage in social bookmarking or other means to suggest important sources of information. Social media is well known for being timely in terms of information dissemination during crises. This has also been the case with Charlie Hebdo. Citizen journalists use social media to report on what is happening on the ground. Often citizen journalists can be closer to the epicenter of a crisis. For example, eyewitness accounts outside Charlie Hebdo’s offices were being tweeted as the events unfolded and the opinions of Parisians were being retweeted right away. Though, like in any crisis, because much of this information is produced by non-professional journalists, social media has and continues to be plagued by issues of information integrity. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, factually inaccurate accounts in terms of the number of dead or number of gunmen were widely circulating on social media.

Social media is also used to check how friends and family are faring during the crises and many platforms including Facebook and Twitter afford us the ability to keep tabs on large circles of friends, family members, and colleagues during crises. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, social media was being used to both collectively express solidarity as well as for Parisians to talk to each other as small and large groups about what happened and how they were feeling.

In following #JeSuisCharlie, it remains clear that we have to remember that trending topics by definition trend because they are popular. As such, they are also attractive targets for anyone who wants a soapbox. Because of the usually open nature of social media, hijacking is possible (whether through bots or masses of supporters). Companies have also tried to sell products via popular hashtags during times of crises – usually in poor taste. Extremists have also had success in inserting themselves into trending topics. Pro-ISIS supporters, for example, have made social media a central aspect of their recruitment and propaganda machine. In the case of #JeSuisCharlie, supporters of the gunmen also emerged. In my book, I argue that the openness of social media makes it able to be used by any side (including extremists, spammers and trolls). In this sense social media like all communication media is value neutral. This can have real consequences on civil society as people increasingly turn to social media as a community space to interact publicly.

This can lead to a certain divisiveness on social media. What often happens in social media and more broadly online are processes of polarization that can often privilege certain positions. Additionally, certain individuals and groups have more social media savvy/knowledge and are able to better leverage the platforms to get their points across. This can result in floods of retweets or mentions where polarized sides and up preaching to the choir and not talking to each other. This is not exclusive to crisis communication, but is a broader trend on Twitter and other social media. Sadly, this polarization does not advance collective dialogues during times of crisis.

Ultimately, we may be tempted to view #JeSuisCharlie as a peripheral part of the Charlie Hebdo crisis. However, social media plays an important role in shaping public perceptions of crises. This is particularly true when celebrities, politicians, and social media ‘influencers’ direct or spark conversations, chatter, or the circulation of information. Often just a handful of tweets are what are most read and responded to during crises. For example in the recent shooting at Florida State University in the US, a tweet about a shooting victim whose life was saved by a bullet hitting a stack of library books in his backpack generated the most discussion on Twitter and was highly influential in shaping social media discussions. In the case of Charle Hebdo, the same is true with next week’s cover of the New Yorker the most retweeted and commented on image and tweets by CNN’s Jake Tapper and Stephen Fry the most retweeted and commented on. Even though social media contains a deluge of content during crises, certain themes can and do shape public opinion during crises.

The study of social media has great promise, but we always need to understand its limitations. This sounds rather basic, but it is often not reflexively thought about. Though social media is not as shiny as it was several years ago, the zeitgeist still persists and it often clouds our ability to frame what it is exactly that we are doing with all the social data we have access to.[1] Specifically, if we use Twitter data, it is not enough to just leave research at the level of frequency counts (top hashtags, top retweets, most engaged with comments, etc.). David De Roure [2] warns that this type analysis of social media misses the social aspects of web technologies. Ultimately, social media spaces are sociotechnical systems and the social that is (re)produced – like face-to-face communication – is highly nuanced. I think that it is fundamentally important for researchers of social media data across the disciplines to think critically beyond the literal results of brute force machine learning. Rather, this is an opportunity for us to ask large and important social questions. My point is epistemological in that I think it is important for our results to contribute to our understanding of these social questions. This is not to say that quantitative methods such as natural language processing, n-grams (and other co-occurrence methods), and various descriptive statistics are not important to the study of social media. But, rather, they are often the starting or mid point of a research project. In my work, Big Data analytical models provide a great way to get a birds-eye view of social media data. However, they cannot answer social questions as such. However, these methods are valuable to, for example, grounded theory approaches, which can help produce valuable research questions or social insights. Additionally, the mixing of methods this encourages is exciting as it provides opportunities for us to innovate new research methods rather than trying to fit traditional research methods (though doing this is valuable of course too).

[1] Ramesh Jain in his talk at the NUS Web Science & Big Data Analytics workshop puts this as data being everywhere and that we have access to billions of data streams.

[2] In his talk at the NUS Web Science & Big Data Analytics workshop (December 8th, 2014)