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Issue Overview

Social Media is a global phenomenon. Around the world, more than 1.2 billion people use social media or social network sites, accounting for 82% of the world’s online population.1 The digital media landscape has changed immensely, influenced by social media and social network sites, which have transformed the way people work, govern, communicate and live. Although this has created immense opportunity, it has also created disruption.

Traditionally, mass communication has been hierarchal. Information and influence radiated outward from a select group (governments, businesses and media), but the rapid acceleration of technology is challenging these hierarchical patterns. Today, through the Internet and other networked technologies, people have unprecedented access to information and a broad suite of easily accessible online technologies with which to share that information. Furthermore, the potential for instant connection around the globe is phenomenal. This creates the potential for decentralized mechanisms of power and results in new opportunities to engage with real time events as they play out on a global stage.

Social media is a major force in driving this shift. These communication and information technologies link people and this provides a platform on which information and influence can flow. As social media becomes more powerful and more commonplace, the potential for world shifts increases exponentially.

Council Focus

Amid this disruption, the Global Agenda Council on Social Networks aims to be a centre for ideas, knowledge and facts for other Councils – demonstrating the positive power of social media, and shedding light on some of the confusion, contested values and unanswered questions. The Council hopes that by (1) providing clarity about some of the vocabulary used; (2) identifying a few tension points or trade-offs emphasized through these information and communication technologies, and (3) demonstrating, through case studies, the positive impact of social media on individuals, NGOs, businesses and governments, that it will help uncover the mystery – and sometimes fear – that many organisations have towards social media and social network sites.

The Council has therefore focused its work on the following three issues:

 1. Social Media Literacy

Whenever a new phenomenon occurs, jargon follows. Social media is no different. Pundits, scholars, politicians and journalists throw around countless terms. In order to discuss the role that social media is playing in social, political and economic spheres, it’s important to locate the key terms. The Council has attempted to provide a basic overview of the most commonly used concepts. These definitions can be used as guidelines in discussions. For example:

  •  a) Big data is a cultural and technological phenomenon that involves the interplay of technology (using expanding computational power to gather, analyse, link and compare large data sets), analysis (drawing on large data sets to identify patterns in order to shape economic, social, technical and legal decisions), and mythology (the widespread belief that large data offers a higher form of intelligence and knowledge that can generate insights that were previously impossible).
  •  b) The “cloud” refers to an integrated set of software, server and data storage solutions that enable remote storage of data in ways that allow people to remotely access their data from any device, provided they have Internet access. In theory, the cloud works seamlessly, such that users are unaware of what’s on their device and what’s being done remotely over the network.
  •  c) Social graph refers to a whole collection of people (“nodes”) and their connections (“edges”). Social network sites like Facebook and Twitter each have their own social graph, consisting of all of the people, relationships and interactions that occur on their service. The social graph is seen as one of the most valuable assets of social media companies.
  •  d) Social media refers to a set of technologies that emerged in the 2000s as part of the “Web 2.0” phenomenon. These technologies enable both interpersonal communication (for example, texting) as well as one-to-many communication (for example, blogging, video-sharing and status updates). Many of these technologies allow participants to post “user-generated content”, receive comments, and otherwise engage in semi-public forums that allow for social interaction. While the particular features of social media are not new – e-mail and bulletin boards date back to the 1960s and 1970s – social media has enabled broad swaths of the population to connect, share, find information and communicate in unprecedented ways. Examples include: Blogger, Facebook, RenRen, Skype, Twitter and YouTube.
  •  e) Social network is a sociological term that refers to people’s personal relationships with friends, family and acquaintances “Strong ties” are the most meaningful relationships, while “weak ties” allow people to connect with a diverse group of others who can be helpful in gathering support for finding jobs, getting advice, or learning about new ideas. “Social network sites” reveal a component of a person’s social network.
  •  f) Social networking is a sociological term that refers to the action of meeting new people and building connections (thus, expanding one’s “social network”). Many social media services enable social networking, but most people use social media to interact with people that they already know.
  •  g) Social network sites are a genre of “social media” in which participants (1) have uniquely identifiable profiles that consist of user-supplied content, including any personal information they choose to provide (for example, their name, place of residence school, employment, areas of interest), content provided by other users and system-level data; (2) can publicly articulate connections that can be viewed and traversed by others; and (3) can consume, produce, and/or interact with streams of “user-generated content” provided by their connections on the site. These are sometimes referred to as “social networking sites,” but what makes them unique is their focus on lists of connections, not their ability to help people meet new people. Examples include: Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, MySpace and Twitter.
  •  h) User-generated content (UGC) refers to content produced by participants and posted to websites without editorial overview. Many “social media” websites enable the posting of UGC in the form of comments, uploaded images/videos, status updates and links. There are extensive legal debates over whether or not companies that host UGC should be accountable for the accuracy or ownership of this content.
  •  i) Web 2.0 refers to three different interlinked concepts. For technologists, it refers to new development tools (for example, Hadoop, Ruby, JavaScript), the rise of front-end development processes (software used to render the functionality of a website or application to a user), and the switch from shipping products to ongoing development (“the perpetual beta”). For entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, it refers to the second wave of Silicon Valley and the re-emergence of an opportunity to capitalize on the Web (following the dot-com bust). For the public, it refers to mainstream development of social media services that allow people to connect to broad audiences.

 Top 10 Need-to-Knows About Social Media and Where It’s Headed2  (more in Appendix 1)

  1. People spend more time on social network sites than on any other activity online. As of October 2011, 19% of time spent online around the world is spent on social network sites. In many cases, these sites are replacing e-mail and instant messaging (IM) as the primary form of communication.
  2. People’s engagement on social media both transcends and reflects regional differences around the world. Social media practices often reflect underlying culture, but there are some universal trends. For example, the region most actively engaged on social media is Latin America; the least actively engaged is Asia Pacific. Also, women spend more time using social media than men.
  3. The importance of Facebook cannot be understated. In 2011, three out of every four minutes that people spent on social media were spent on Facebook. There are no other social websites as popular.
  4. Microblogging (Twitter, Weibo) has emerged as a disruptive new social media force. The 140-character approach to communication has established an entirely new way of communicating and curating content across a broad set of personal and professional interests.
  5. Local social network sites are making inroads globally. Increasingly, social media growth is coming from the arrival of new populations from countries outside where the site first grew popular. Examples include LinkedIn, which is experiencing a lot of growth in Western Europe.
  6. It’s not just young people using social media – it’s everyone. While older people were slower to adopt social media, older demographic groups represent some of the fastest growing segments across the world.
  7. Mobile devices play a central role in driving social media adoption. In the United States, 65% of smartphone users access a social media site from their phone in a given month; in Europe it is 45%. Mobile access is growing steadily in these regions and across the world.
  8. People get critical information (for example, news or crisis updates) through social media based “word-of-mouth” communication. Whether it’s the Arab Spring, an earthquake in Japan, or the killing of Osama bin Laden, there is no question social media sites are playing a critical role at sharing information about major events as they unfold.
  9. The economics around social media have not yet stabilized. Many social media sites and applications offer users a specific experience, but monetization is still limited. Most sites focus on the role of advertising, but not all social media sites have been able to leverage advertising to make a profit.
  10. There is plenty of room for new entrants in the social media landscape. Although Facebook is the current Goliath in this space, new entrants regularly spring up and take root. Pinterest and Instagram are two examples. Pinterest launched in summer 2011, and has amassed a following of over 25 million in less than nine months; Instagram was sold to Facebook for US$1 billion in spring 2012.

2. Tension Points and Contested Values

Social network sites have given individuals new opportunities to connect at a rate not known before. This new digital landscape introduces new challenges, trade-offs and contested values. Are interactions different because of social media? Or do humans interact in the same way that they always have? Does social media amplify, speed and scale these interactions, and if so, are new rules needed for these online realities?

a) Real names, pseudonyms, anonymity vs. Freedom of speech and accountability. Since the earliest days of the Internet, users regularly employed pseudonyms (“nicks”, “handles” or “screen names”) when interacting with others online. Some Internet services enable true anonymity, making it impossible to connect a person’s pseudonym with their physical identity. Other services (for example, Facebook and Google Plus) require users to provide their “real name” in lieu of a pseudonym.

Recently, the “nymwars” have sparked tremendous debate about how to understand identity in a digital environment, with users arguing about the value of anonymity (free speech, whistle blowers), the importance of accountability (hate speech, illegal activities, bullying), and the question of stature (why do Lady Gaga and Madonna get to use their pseudonyms?).

Should new regulation prevent companies and websites, such as WikiLeaks, from creating or providing a platform that allows anonymity? What impact would such a hypothetical law or set of laws have on human rights and freedom of speech? What are the trade-offs that need to be made by individuals, corporations and governments?

b) Transparency: Many of those involved in technology highly value transparency, particularly with regard to public data, governmental processes, and relationships between powerful actors. The value of transparency underlies initiatives like Gov 2.0 and is at the root of WikiLeaks’ activities.

c) Privacy: In the technology industry, privacy is typically understood as programmatic user control over data. It is implemented through privacy features, historically referred to as “access-control lists.” Privacy is typically juxtaposed against public-ness, which many in the tech industry view as more valuable (both from a societal perspective as well as an economic one). Technological models of privacy often clash with legal and social interpretations of the concept, creating significant regulatory and news issues. One thought to consider is that the nature of most offline actions is private by default and public by design or choice, whereas most of online actions tend to be public by default and private by choice.

d) Regulation: In his seminal book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, legal scholar Lawrence Lessig argued that social systems are regulated by four forces: the market, the law, social norms, and architecture/technology (or “code”). Many of the issues that surround social media result from a collision between these four forces. It is important to recognize that there is little trust between the four forces, even when they appear to align.

3. Illustrative Examples/Case Studies

To illustrate the power of social media for different stakeholders, the Global Agenda Council on Social Networks shared three case studies on how a business (LEGO), a government (Canada), and civil society (Anna Hazare) used social media for transformative reasons.3

a) LEGO Group

The LEGO Group is a privately-held company based in Billund, Denmark, producing colourful interlocking plastic bricks and other parts, which can be assembled in multiple ways to produce an array of figures, constructions, vehicles and landmarks. LEGO’s social media endeavours are rooted in a variety of tools and platforms.

The LEGO Ambassador Programme is a LEGO community-based volunteer programme made up of representatives from LEGO user groups globally. The mission of the ambassadors is to work together with LEGO in all areas which concern the worldwide LEGO community, and be the voice of their respective LEGO user groups. In June 2010, LEGO created LEGO Cl!ck (read click), a digital community that encourages fans, artists, designers and inventors to share their own LEGO creations. LEGO describes it as a collaborative group where users’ “light bulb” moments are captured and catalogued.

ReBrick is a social media platform, created by LEGO, where adult users can share and discuss user-created LEGO content online. It has five main functionalities: (1) share favourite creations; (2) get inspired; (3) follow users; (4) tag and search; (5) ReBrick it! LEGO has also created a social network site for children: My LEGO Network. The site consists of a safe environment where children can collect, build and trade with virtual items, and it allows them to create their own webpage and share their creativity with the “whole wide world”.

b) Government of Canada

The Government of Canada is constituted from an impressive collection of more than 100 departments, agencies and ministries. These entities have differing mandates and goals, with a primary unifying theme of providing services to enrich the quality of life of Canadians. Governmental entities try to engage with citizens and non-citizens, as well as businesses, NGOs and other groups to convey and/or gather information/feedback about the various programmes offered. Some examples include:

  • Health Canada: This department uses Twitter to post health-related notices about pandemics, public safety issues and product recalls. It also has a very successful anti-drug campaign on Facebook
  • Human Resources Canada: The department has posted a successful series of YouTube videos for immigrants to explain the realities of working in the country. These contain information about wages, workplace regulations and immigration requirements

The government is also using social media tools in internal settings. An interesting example of public service collaboration using Web 2.0 tools is the online resource named GCPedia, an internal wiki for collaboration and knowledge sharing. Its slogan is “People & Knowledge”. A number of tools have also surfaced to organize the information from the government in a structured manner. For example, a non-governmental group launched Zegov, an aggregator of Government of Canada social media accounts (, which allows the public, media and public service employees to follow the government’s ongoing flow of information on social media in real time.

c) India Against Corruption

In 2011, India was ranked 95th out of 178 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. To create awareness and highlight the multiple scams, social activist Anna Hazare commenced an anti-corruption movement, India Against Corruption (IAC), in April 2011 based on the non-violent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. The objective of this movement was to press the Government of India to pass legislation aimed at deterring corruption, reducing grievances of corruption and protecting whistle blowers.

Hazare’s supporters created Facebook pages, including a “List of Scams in India – Every Indian must see this…”, and “Anna Hazare – Movement against Corruption”. These pages attracted more than 300,000 supporters within a day. More than 150 Facebook pages related to “Anna Hazare” and “India Against Corruption” emerged, the majority of these being created by non-official supporters of Hazare. Twitter gave another dimension to his movement by garnering support from celebrities including Bollywood actors and cricket players. YouTube was not far behind Facebook and Twitter. Hundreds of videos were uploaded in support of Hazare’s campaign. Even SMSs played an important role in heightening the agitation. To add further support, Juventus Technologies, developed an IAC app for Android and Nokia mobile users. This app provided breaking news, live streaming of videos, volunteer registration and polling and information on the events surrounding the protest.

Council Impact

The Global Agenda Council on Social Networks aims to be a resource for other Councils by demonstrating the positive power of social media and shedding light on some of the confusion, contested values and unanswered questions. By leveraging its members’ expertise and knowledge, the Council looks forward to a continued collaboration.


The Rise of the Social Networking Audience / Time Spent Online on Key Internet Activities

Percentage of Online Population Using Social Networking around the World

Social Networking Penetration Among Worldwide Demographic Groups


The opinions expressed here are those of the individual members of the Council and not of the World Economic Forum or any institutions to which they are affiliated.