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Social Media Definition and the Governance Challenge: An Introduction to the Special Issue

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Jonathan Obar


Steve Wildman


Social Media Definition and the Governance Challenge: An Introduction to the Special Issue


This introduction to a special issue of “Telecommunications Policy” entitled “The Governance of Social Media” begins with a definition of social media that informs all contributions in the special issue. A section describing the challenges associated with the governance of social media is presented next, followed by an overview of the various articles included in the special issue.

While the Internet and the World Wide Web have always been used to facilitate social interaction, the emergence and rapid diffusion of Web 2.0 functionalities during the first decade of the new millennium enabled an evolutionary leap forward in the social component of web use. This and falling costs for online data storage made it feasible for the first time to offer masses of Internet users access to an array of user-centric spaces they could populate with user-generated content, along with a correspondingly diverse set of opportunities for linking these spaces together to form virtual social networks.

To define “social media” for our current purposes, we synthesize definitions presented in the literature and identify the following commonalities among current social media services:

1) Social media services are (currently) Web 2.0 Internet-based applications,

2) User-generated content is the lifeblood of social media,

3) Individuals and groups create user-specific profiles for a site or app designed and maintained by a social media service,

4) Social media services facilitate the development of social networks online by connecting a profile with those of other individuals and/or groups.

Transformative communication technologies have always called for regulatory innovation. Theodor Vail’s vision of “one policy, one system, universal service” preceded more than one-hundred years of innovative regulations aimed at connecting all Americans to a single telephone network. The sinking of the Titanic, caused in part by “chaos in the spectrum” led to the Radio Act of 1912 and the creation of a command and control model designed to regulate broadcast radio. Safe-harbor hours were put in place after a father and son heard George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” routine over the radio in their car. The fairness doctrine and the minority tax certificate program were designed to address inequalities in the broadcast television industry. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act responded to intellectual property concerns raised by a global Internet and the FCC’s 700mhz auction was the result of demand for smarter mobile phones. Now we must consider the role of regulatory innovation in response to the emergence of social media.

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