Current State of Social Media Research: From Practice to Theory #SMSociety15

In the lead up to the 2015 Social Media and Society International CoSMLSMS Logos JPG v2nference in Toronto, I began thinking a lot about the state of social media research in academia. I wanted to provide attendees with a map of what is happening in our research field and to challenge my peers to move beyond thinking only about tools and platforms. In particular, I wanted my fellow researchers to also think about theories underpinning much of our research and to take a critical look at what exactly we are studying when we say we are studying social media. This blog post is my attempt to map out the emerging social media research landscape in order to identify some of the gaps and future issues facing researchers who are studying social media.

Figure 1: Google Search Trends for the term “Social Media”
Figure 1: Google Search Trends for the term “Social Media”

As a research area, social media research is still relatively young. The term “social media” first appeared  in the literature the early 2000s, around the same time as the emergence of Facebook in 2004 (see Figure 1 above). This interest in social media research grew in tandem with the rising popularity of social networking sites. There are now about 200 active social networking websites operating in all major languages and countries around the world (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Major Social Networking Sites around the Globe (Source:

Mapping Social Media Research

I first wanted to understand the current landscape of this still emerging field of social media research. To do this, I conducted an automated content analysis of the existing literature on social media in order to identify main themes contained therein. Figure 3 below shows a map of the topics frequently mentioned in the 14,500 abstracts of journal articles and conference papers on “social media” or “social networking websites” published after 1999.  Looking at the map, one can see that some of the most researched areas in social media research include: (1) health-related research, (2) studies focusing on the educational use of social media, (3) computational and computer science papers, (4) business, organizational and marketing studies, as well as (5) studies on political and social engagement.

Figure 3: Popular Topics Discussed in Social Media Literature. (Note: Built using VOSviewer and Web of Science.)
Figure 3: Popular Topics Discussed in Social Media Literature. (Note: Built using VOSviewer and Web of Science.)


By examining the map more closely, it also reveals an abundance of studies about college students and their use of Facebook (marked in the map as area #6). In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this. It is widely accepted that students are often early adopters of social media; but if we continue to focus our research attention on this easily accessible study population, there is a risk of creating a very narrow view of social media uses. I raised this concern, because older adults are now embracing social media in ever increasing numbers; as a research community, we need to start including older demographic into studies of social media use.

Another important observation that we can draw from this map is not just from what is shown in the visualization but what is absent from the map. For example, neither journalists nor legal professionals are featured in this high-level view of the research area. As these two professions are increasingly adopting social media, we expect to see more papers published about their social media use and the impact of social media on their work.

In Search of a Social Media Theory

Looking to the future, to grow and deepen this field of research, social media researchers need to ground their work into a more solid theoretical foundation. Without this foundation we risk remaining a field awash in niche empirical studies and being driven by ever-changing computational algorithms, new interfaces and functions of social media websites, changing user needs and advances in big data analytics. Perhaps due to the complexity and multidisciplinarity of the field, there is currently no single theory that can explain the nuanced nature of social media uses, users and interfaces.  Below is a “tree map” visualization showing some of the most common theories used in social media studies to date. It was built by compiling and then querying a comprehensive list of theoretical approaches frequently mentioned in the social media literature against Google Scholar database.

Figure 4: Theoretical Approaches Frequently Cited in Social Media Literature
Figure 4: Theoretical Approaches Frequently Cited in Social Media Literature

Based on these rough estimates, we can tell that the literature on social media is no stranger to theories. Some of the most cited approaches include Critical Theory, McLuhan’s Media Theory, Game Theory, and Social Cognitive Theory. However, most of these theories predate social media and have a limited explanatory power in the realm of social media. One example is how online community researchers (including myself) apply various notions of physical communities to online worlds, such as the notion of the “Sense of Community” developed by McMillan and Chavis in 1986 for communities that were quite different from those that currently exist in social media spanning both physical and virtual dimensions. Social media researchers must be cognizant of the characteristics, nuances and limitation of these theories when applying them in their research.

Laying the Foundation for a New Social Media Theory

At its core social media is a technology designed and used by humans and is operated within constraints and hierarchies of a physical world. As a result, it is only natural to rely on earlier theoretical frameworks to understand the impact of social media on society. However, one of the dangers of relying on and applying “pre-social media” theories to social media is that we might be missing an opportunity to build new models for understanding the social media age. It is like trying to make a combustion engine more efficient and environmentally friendly instead of developing new types of engines that would work on new energy sources. There are several examples of new, empirically-driven and specialized theoretical concepts that are starting to emerge that do take into account how people participate in social media and online social networks. For one, Barry Wellman’s concept of Networked Individualism (Wellman, 2001Rainie & Wellman, 2012) introduces the idea that we are no longer bounded by group-based networks and instead form so-called individualized networks that connect us to multiple different social networks. Caroline Haythornthwaite’s theory of Media Multiplexity presents a second example, as she explains multi-channel media use based on a tie strength among people and Haythornthwaite’s concept (2002) of Latent Ties  (“ones that exist technically but have not yet been activated“). Other highly relevant concepts also include “hyperconnectivity”, “local virtuality” and “virtual locality” developed by Anabel Quan-Haase and Barry Wellman. As a final example, here is a relatively new (and still evolving) information diffusion model in social media called “Multilevel Model of Meme Diffusion” (M3D) that I especially like due to its ability to model information propagation processes at both individual and collective levels. M3D is being developed by Dr. Brian Spitzberg and colleagues at San Diego State University (Spitzberg, 2014). Potentially, these are some of the theoretical concepts and approaches that can lay the foundation for a new social media theory.  

As part of my presentation at the conference, I challenged the researchers present to try to build a new comprehensive theory of social media, informed by pre-social media theories. So if we were to take on such a task, what would it look like?

First, I think it will be a user-centric theory as humans are at the core of social media development and use. Second, such a theory would address the following broad questions:

  • Why do people adopt social media?
  • What social needs are being satisfied via the use of social media?
    • This question can be handled with the help of Uses and Gratification Theory more broadly (see, for example, Gruzd & Goertzen, 2013) or unpacked into one of the following dimensions:
      1. Community dimension: What social needs are being satisfied on social media? For a review of related theoretical work and application of Benedict Anderson’s (1983) notion of “Imagined Community”, see Gruzd, Wellman, & Takhteyev, 2011).
      2. Learning dimension: What learning needs are being satisfied on social media? This dimension would likely be based on Vygotsky’s (1978) Social Constructivism, the idea that knowledge and learning are socially constructed by interacting with others. I also see this dimension being informed by George Siemens’ work on Connectivism, a new learning theory designed to reflect the changing nature of learning in open, frequently informal, networked, and technology-enabled environments.
      3. Information dimension: What information needs are being satisfied on social media? This dimension will need to draw from various Information Behavioral and Information Seeking models rooted in Library and Information Science. (As a side note, it is always surprising to me, how Information Science models and theories are often overlooked in studies of social media, especially considering the growing reliance on social media platforms to share, access and use various types of information and resources.)
  • What are people doing while on social media and why are they doing it (both individually as well as collectively)?
    • Under these questions, the theory would have to explain complex processes such as social influence, sense making, trust, rumor propagation, etc.
      1. To explain “collectivebehavior, we can turn to theories and models under the general umbrella of Social Network Theory such as Granovetter’s (‎1973) Strength of Weak Ties. Another set of theories that are also highly relevant here are those related to the Studies of Networked Influence (see, Gruzd & Wellman, 2014).
      2. To explain “individualbehavior, we may want to turn to theories that discuss the presentation of self, Williams and Christie’s (1976) Social Presence Theory and Goffman’s (1959) Self-presentation Theory, and how we process signals received from others in complex systems, Walther’s (1992) Social Information Processing Theory, Daft and Lengel’s (1984/6) Media/Information Richness Theory and others.

Please use the comments section below to share your comments about theories that you use in social media research and why.


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