Colleen Otte

Social Media: A Moving Target

It was one of those hazy, late-summer afternoons. The air was heavy and still, the lawn about as dull a green as it could get—the classic, borderline yellow-brown of thirsty grass. At the edge of this grass, where it met the taller weeds that marked the end of the yard, lurked a little gray creature with white mittens: my cat.

My sister and I quietly looked on as he slinked slowly toward the weeds—placing each paw carefully upon the lawn in the pursuit of a rodent hiding amidst the thick. When he froze mid-step, my sister and I awaited the moment an explosive chase would unfold before our eyes. But, when our cat returned his front paw to the ground, it impacted a leaf that, like the grass, was dry and shriveled.


The crunch was followed by the scrabbling of the small creature through the brush, and everything in our cat’s body language screamed disappointment. After a moment, he even glanced over his shoulder as though ashamed to discover that someone had been watching his literal misstep. My sister and I can’t help but laugh about his hunting misfortunes to this day.

So, why am I reciting this silly story about my cat? (Aside from, of course, the obvious reason that cat woes are some of our favorite viral social media posts.) It’s because, truthfully, social media is just like that pesky rodent that evaded my cat’s claws.

No, really. Clearly, the rodent proved to be an elusive, moving target. Social media is similarly difficult to pin down; researchers find themselves walking a mile in my cat’s…mittens?

Image: Flickr, Jason Howie
Image: Flickr, Jason Howie

Social media is constantly evolving, making it exceptionally difficult to provide a universal definition for it. As of right now, Merriam Webster offers a fairly timeless definition of the term. According to the dictionary, social media is “forms of electronic communication (as Web sites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages and other content (as videos).”

The Pew Research Center in its report “Social Media Usage: 2005 to 2015,” however, revealed that the term’s meaning changes as people’s preferences change. Just as the faint crunch of a fallen leaf sent my cat’s prey running the other way, so too can societal conditions prompt a quick turnaround in how we choose to consume media.

According to Pew, social media usage fluctuates based on the trends that emerge within and across demographic groups. For example, racial and ethnic variance, age differences, gender differences, socioeconomic differences and community differences can all contribute to how social media is marketed and ingested. At the conclusion of its report, the Pew Research Center walked us through the fascinating evolution of “social media users” from 2005 to the present.

“In 2005, social media users were defined as those who said ‘yes’ to ‘Do you ever use online social or professional networking sites like Friendster or LinkedIn?’” reported Pew. “In August 2006, social media users were defined as those who said ‘yes’ to ‘Do you ever use an online social networking site like Myspace, Facebook or Friendster?’

From May 2008 to August 2011, social media users were defined as those who said ‘yes’ to ‘Do you ever use the internet to use a social networking site like Myspace, Facebook or LinkedIn?’ From February 2012 to January 2014, social media users were defined as those who said ‘yes’ to ‘Do you ever use the internet to use a social networking site like Facebook, LinkedIn or Google Plus?’ The most recent measure in July 2015 defined social media users as those who said ‘yes’ to ‘Do you ever use a social networking site like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn?’”

So, something tells me we won’t be getting our paws on that rascal of a rodent anytime soon. But hey, the fun all lies in the thrill of the chase, right?

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