What is it?
The term 'Social media' refers to any kind of online platform where users can exchange stuff (sometimes known as User Generated Content). That stuff can be views, opinions, pictures, videos, presentations. Social media is interactive, so because people can leave comments on your blogposts, your blogs are social media.
Facebook and Twitter probably the two most famous social networks - they're the two most popular at this time, certainly. The numbers are huge, and among younger demographics more people use social media than use email. Here's a video with a suitably dramatic soundtrack to give you some mind-spinning facts and figures:
Why is it useful?
There are a HUGE number of information professionals, both in IT and Libraries, on social media. It therefore acts as a way to increase the network of people you can call upon to help and advise and encourage you professionally. In the same way that you might look up from your PC and ask your colleagues how best to do something, you can ask hundreds or thousands of colleagues the same question around the world. It's like a human Google, where instead of an algorithm bringing back the answer, it's a trusted network of your peers.
Using social media also keeps you up to date with your field. Because you're plugged into a network of information professionals, important knowledge comes to you without you having to go out and find it - for example interesting conferences or training coming up, calls for papers, new tools and technologies, trends in academia and so on. I occasionally teach courses on emerging trends and technologies and when people ask how I keep with all the new platforms and ideas, the boring but true answer is always: I'm on Twitter. That's enough.
Having an online presence is very easy with social media, and that makes it attractive to people who want to build their professional reputations. Social media allows you to showcase your knowledge and expertise, and to connect with people who have relevant interests. It's a great leveller - for example on Twitter you can talk to everyone from people just starting out in our professions, to people who run libraries, IT departments, and even Universities.
Activity: Get an overview of the big social networks
This Thing's activity is very simple - you really just need to read to the end of this post! Then anyone curious can sign up to some of the platforms I'm about to describe, if they want to, and have a play around - it's entirely up to you. As I say we'll be setting up accounts for Twitter and Google+ over the next couple of weeks, so this primer only covers the other major platforms.
Facebook is the big one - it has over 1 billion active accounts. It's a social network where people exchange pictures, status updates, and so on; you know all this because you're probably on it already...
YouTube is the main site for sharing videos, and it is huge; as the video says above it's the second most searched site everyday. In other words Yahoo!, Bing, all of these search engines that search the entire web, still don't get as many searches as YouTube does just for videos. 72 hours of video are uploaded every minute. In one year YouTube the same number of views as if every single human on earth watched 140 videos each. Etc etc. The other major video sharing site is Vimeo, which provides a smaller, somewhat classier alternative to YouTube.
LinkedIn is the main social network for business, and for career minded people. It's primarily an opportunity to showcase your CV, but people also use the many groups and discussion forms to chat about professional issues. LinkedIn results show up incredibly high in Google, so it's worth having an account just so people who Google you find your professional activities near the top!
Academia.edu is minuscule compared to the giants of social media we're discussing here - but we're including it anyway as it's so relevant to working in a University. Academia essentially tries to sell itself as an academic Facebook, and indeed you can use it that way - set a up a profile, interact with other users and so on. But you can just use it to find out about papers being published in the areas you're interested in - authors often put early versions online at Academia.edu before they're published in journals. You can also talk directly to those authors.
Honourable mentions go to Pinterest (an increasingly popular place for curating and sharing multimedia, usually pictures), FourSquare (a geolocation site which takes advantage of the fact that your smartphone knows where you are, allowing you to 'check in' to physical locations), Flickr (the main image sharing site, other than Facebook) and good old MySpace (many libraries experimented with MySpace when it first came out, often with fairly rubbish results - although much maligned, MySpace has attempted to reinvent itself as a primarily music-based network, and actually still gets over 70,000,000 unique visitors per month).
If you have time, write a short blog (or long!) blog post about whether you think social media is for you, which platforms you're on and what you use them for, and which you might join in the future.