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Review of _Understanding Social Media_ by Jenna Pack Sheffield (Kairos 19.3)

Jenna Pack Sheffield reviews Sam Hinton & Larissa Hjorth's Understanding Social Media. Full webtext is published in the peer-reviewed journal Kairos: Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, 19.3, http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/19.3/reviews/sheffield
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Transcript of Review of _Understanding Social Media_ by Jenna Pack Sheffield (Kairos 19.3)

Review of
Understanding Social Media

by Sam Hinton & Larissa Hjorth
Reviewed by Jenna Pack Sheffield, PhD
University of New Haven
Overview
In
Understanding Social Media
, Sam Hinton and Larissa Hjorth (2013) critically examined social media, presenting readers with many of the debates surrounding the definitions of social media and exploring how social media is both affecting and being affected by social and technological developments. Hjorth, a digital ethnographer and associate professor in RMIT University’s Games Programs, and Hinton, senior lecturer in media and head of Media Arts and Graphic Design at the University of Canberra, skillfully weaved throughout the book four main themes:
empowerment/control,

online/offline,

the role of the local/cultural, and
the intimacy turn.
Hinton and Hjorth identified and explained key scholarship surrounding social media and traced their four themes through this scholarship and through their own case studies. Chapter 1 is a brief introduction to the book; as such, this review begins with Chapters 2 & 3.

The theme of empowerment/control was concerned with whether users of social media are using or being used by social media.
The theme of offline versus online served to remind readers that offline practices very often influence communicative practices online.
The theme of the local/cultural was explored as the authors both employed scholarship and case studies that were not solely Anglophonic and reminded readers that local relationships and cultural affinities influence online social activities.
The theme of the intimacy turn was explored as the authors argued that intimacy is a primary structural factor for social media.
Conclusions & Usefulness
Social Network Sites
Participation & Cultural Production
In
Chapter 2
,
Sam Hinton and Larissa Hjorth (2013) explained the differences between Web 1.0 (a phantom term constructed after Web 2.0 became a popular term) and Web 2.0, with the goal of explaining how Web 2.0 gave rise to social networking sites. In this chapter, they clarified that the term Web 2.0 does not refer to actual changes in the Internet’s architecture but instead refers to “the types of software employed and changes at the level of user practices” (p. 16). They posited that Web 2.0 is a philosophy of doing business online that developed after the dot-com collapse, and the changes to user practice they referenced were the result of the realization that web users are not like TV audiences (passive viewers). This realization brought about changes to websites that would allow users to easily personalize and create content without coding skills. Hence, blogs, social networking sites, and wikis tend to be associated with the rise of Web 2.0. This short chapter offered a clear and easily comprehensible history of the web that may prove especially useful for undergraduate or graduate students beginning to study new media.
Games & Mobile Media
In this chapter, Sam Hinton and Larissa Hjorth (2013) also explored their first theme—
empowerment/control
—in relationship to the rise of user-generated and user-created content within Web 2.0. They reminded readers that, in some ways, the web in general, and social media in particular, is “democratising, empowering and emancipatory” for users, but we also have become dependent upon “the digital” and hence subject to privacy concerns (p. 24). Any time users sign up for a social media site, for instance, they are creating online information about themselves. Instead of arguing that
social media
is wholly empowering or controlling, the authors have usefully posited that it
can be both.
Some exploitation, they argued, is the price users pay for a certain amount of empowerment.
Sam Hinton and Larissa Hjorth’s (2013) suggestion that the ability to share and create content was key to the rise of Web 2.0 led to
Chapter 3,
in which they defined social networking sites. At the simplest level,
a Social Networking Site (SNS)

is a site that allows users to establish a web presence and share that presence with others.
Perhaps most productive in Chapter 3 were the authors' reminders that, despite common beliefs, SNSs are most often used to maintain existing relationships as opposed to being used to construct new relationships and that SNS relationships are geographically and socially oriented towards the local (i.e., connections are people one knows through school, work, family). Hence, they argued that SNSs should be understood as “intimate publics" (p. 44), as a technology that mediates intimacy among already existing connections. These assertions can be useful for scholars researching social media, because they should consider the focus on local and personal relationships maintained through social media when pursuing their own research questions.
Photo Credit: Svilen Milev via http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1425525
In
Chapter 4,
the authors

explored the concept of participation. According to Sam Hinton and Larissa Hjorth (2013),
participation
is the one word that “summarises the particular quality of new media” (p. 55), and this participation takes form as user-generated content or user-created content. User-generated content is when already created content is forwarded to others, and user-created content is content made by the user. They argued that Axel Bruns’ term
produser
, a portmanteau of producer and user, is a useful metaphor for understanding the ways users circulate and create content. They deployed the term produser as they explored the participatory power of the user in social media phenomena such as crowdsourcing, smart mobs, citizen journalism, and online activism. Most interesting in this chapter is their explanation of the criticisms of citizen journalism and online activism. They reminded their readers that although social media can be emancipatory and democratizing, there are limitations and problems that arise when the everyday user quickly reports news or organizes a protest—such as concerns with quality and transparency.
Hinton and Hjorth (2013) also carried through their theme of the offline/online in this chapter by arguing that the participatory dimensions of social media are “subject to local conditions” (p. 76) in that local and offline concerns typically are the driving force behind user participation in social media. I liked that the authors provided a balanced view of social media in this chapter that is in line with critical theories of technology that are often deployed in computers and composition. They did so by reminding their readers that social media is not inherently emancipatory and democratizing.
Photo Credit: Jakub Krechowicz via http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1260786
Because social media users are interested in participating by creating and sharing content, Sam Hinton and Larissa Hjorth (2013) argued that the role of social media and art is worthy of examination and has thus far been relatively overlooked in scholarship.
Chapter 5
, therefore, looked at how social media has impacted art, with the greater goal of answering questions as to how social media has affected
cultural production
. The authors suggested that:
Social media offers new modes of cultural production because the user can actually produce cultural objects instead of just interpreting them.
An example is social media art—art in which the web plays a key role in expression and involves the audience.
Institutions such as museums are having to adapt to the changes brought about by social media, and these institutions best adapt by focusing on engaging with audiences.
Some museums have responded, for example, by allowing users to curate art in virtual exhibits.
Vernacular Creativity
The authors also employed the term
vernacular

creativity
to describe
creativity that happens in everyday practices.
They suggested that sites like deviantART (a website that allows artists to share their art and talk about it with others on the site) engage users in vernacular creativity, making cultural production the domain of more individuals than would typically be considered artists by art establishments.
Chapters 6 & 7

explored social media games and social, locative, and mobile media, respectively. Sam Hinton and Larissa Hjorth (2013) began Chapter 6 by arguing that games, in general, despite having a reputation as solitary activities, are actually social activities.
Social media games
, which they defined as
games that are played within SNSs,

have opened up both gaming and social media to audiences that previously had not engaged with them. They argued that games can bring new subscribers to SNSs and that SNSs attract users to becoming game players. They suggested that social media games are typically casual or interruptible and can be played without the high level of attention necessary in games such as
World of Warcraft
, for example (p. 104).

Weaving through their themes of the online/offline, the non-Anglophonic, and empowerment/control, they presented a case study of social game use in China and argued that social media games, in the study, were often used as a way to maintain contact with family and friends. More broadly, they concluded by claiming that social media games are beginning to play a significant role in how people socialize within SNSs, but they were careful to remind readers that behind these games are companies that rely on social games for a significant portion of their revenue. Though this claim is not particularly novel, it is an important concept that computers and composition scholars can discuss with their students.
Chapter Breakdown
Perhaps the common sight of someone playing a game like
Candy Crush Saga
on their cell phone inspired the authors to write
Chapter 7
about mobile media. They claimed that mobile media has progressively become the central portal for social and locative media. This chapter essentially served as a brief overview of the development of mobile technology, including Location Based Services (LBSs) and how they became integrated into mobile technologies.
The authors noted that, as technologies such as camera phones and LBSs converge in smartphones, we are being provided with new ways to map meaning to spaces and places (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 134). Here, I found it useful that they called for more research in the area of locative media that reflects upon privacy and how it is understood across social and cultural contexts.
Photo Credit: David Guo via https://www.flickr.com/photos/76969036@N02/9185928748
In concluding their text, Sam Hinton and Larissa Hjorth (2013) suggested that social media is certainly changing society, but is at the same time reflecting and responding to changes in society. To better understand the world in which we live, they argued, we should pay attention to the ways that social media is “affecting and reflecting social developments” (p. 139). This notion, not unfamiliar or particularly novel to the computers and writing community, pervaded their book, as they looked at social media from a variety of angles.
My major
critique
would be that
much of the text reads like a literature review.
In other words, as opposed to including a balance of their own arguments and case studies with a review of relevant literature, Sam Hinton and Larissa Hjorth (2013) tended to spend most of their time summarizing other literature covering social media. If the book were to serve as a class text, this would not likely be a problem, but for those researchers looking for new arguments, there are not many. The most original chapter was the chapter on cultural production, since research on the relationship between social media and art is indeed lacking. The authors
did an excellent job in this chapter discussing cultural production
and explaining how key social media concepts they identified in other chapters (participation, personalization, content creation) have been played out in the sphere of cultural production, although I was left looking for a more concrete argument at the end of the chapter. Generally, though,
Understanding Social Media
is a welcome addition to the burgeoning scholarship covering social media practices, providing a succinct overview of the history of Web 2.0, expanding traditional conceptions of SNSs, and offering new areas for future inquiry.


Overall,
Understanding Social Media
seems best suited as a textbook for undergraduate and perhaps graduate students in media studies, rhetoric and composition (particularly those focusing on computers and composition), and cultural studies. The authors provided an excellent, interdisciplinary review of extant scholarship on social media and perhaps found their niche by discussing many non-Anglophonic research studies. The text was theoretical, discussing useful key concepts such as
produsage
,
vernacular creativity
, and
intimate publics
, and the authors made such concepts accessible through descriptions of case studies. The text would also be useful to researchers looking for a concise overview of the research that has been conducted around social media, particularly with regard to social media games, mobile media, and art.


Introduction to Social Media
What is Web 2.0?
Social Network Sites
Art & Cultural Production
Participation & User Created Content
Social Media Games
Social, Locative, & Mobile Media
Conclusion
&
CHAPTERS
CHAPTERS
&
CHAPTERS
&
Sam Hinton and Larissa Hjorth (2013) concluded Chapter 3 by providing an overview of the major areas of current SNS research. They characterized current studies as follows. Researchers have:






The chapters following served to remind readers that SNSs are not synonymous with social media. Social media can include other technologies and phenomena. To make this point, the authors first theorized the one word they believe characterizes social media best:
participation
.
examined how SNSs are being used in
non-Anglophonic
contexts;
looked at SNSs as
sites of political action
(and inaction);
determined how SNSs affect
privacy
concerns;
used SNSs to
analyze
social data.
Text
:

Hinton, Sam, & Hjorth, Larissa. (2013).
Understanding social media
. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Images
:

Guo, David (Photographer). (2013, July 1).
Candy Crush Saga
game level 44 failed [Photograph]. Retrieved April 5, 2014, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/76969036@N02/9185928748

Krechowicz, Jakub (Photographer). (2010, February 9). Laptop work [Photograph]. Retrieved April 5, 2014, from http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1260786

Milev, Svilen (Illustrator). (2013, June 20). WWW concept 1 [Illustration]. Retrieved April 5, 2014, from http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1425525


References
Key Terms: vernacular creativity, produsage, intimate publics
Part of the reason I locate my positive assessment of this work in its use of key terms is because these terms can be seen as helpful and relevant to the discipline of computers and composition. Vernacular creativity is a term that could be used to help understand how our students engage in creativity in their everyday practices. Looking at social networking sites as intimate publics furthers our research on social media in the sense that we can understand these technologies as mediating intimacies among already existing communities—whereas earlier social networking research often saw social networks as existing for users to make new connections. This understanding can transform how we research social media and even how we choose to implement it in classroom practices. Produsage, a term that is already used in computers and composition scholarship, resonates with ongoing scholarly conversations, as our field recognizes and researches the blurring boundaries between passive consumption and active production that happens via digital media.
Book's 4 Main Themes
This chapter succeeded in placing social media into the landscape of art (and cultural production more generally). The authors were convincing in their argument that this relationship deserves more scholarly attention. The authors themselves, however, seemed more focused on providing examples of social media art movements rather than theorizing or making a particular argument about these phenomena. The possibility of such theorizing or argument perhaps points to an interesting space of inquiry for further research.
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