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Front Stage on Social Media
#chi4good, CHI 2016, San Jose, CA, USA
The Social Media Ecology: User Perceptions, Strategies
and Challenges
Xuan Zhao
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, USA
[email protected]
Cliff Lampe
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, USA
[email protected]
Nicole B. Ellison
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, USA
[email protected]
more than 70% of people in a nationwide survey reported
using Facebook [10]. As more people have access to the
technology and skills that make up SNS use, their needs
and goals for communication also become more diverse
[22, 25, 38]. This diversity is compounded by the rapidly
changing social media ecology. While long-standing sites
like Facebook and Twitter have been integrated with
communication tools like phones, new tools emerge that
users need to consider in the context of their existing
communication technology use. The changes in both the
heterogeneity of the online population and the tools they
have access to may drive new considerations for how
people manage multiple social media sites.
Many existing studies of social media focus on only one
platform, but the reality of users’ lived experiences is that
most users incorporate multiple platforms into their
communication practices in order to access the people and
networks they desire to influence. In order to better
understand how people make sharing decisions across
multiple sites, we asked our participants (N=29) to
categorize all modes of communication they used, with the
goal of surfacing their mental models about managing
sharing across platforms. Our interview data suggest that
people simultaneously consider “audience” and “content”
when sharing and these needs sometimes compete with one
another; that they have the strong desire to both maintain
boundaries between platforms as well as allowing content
and audience to permeate across these boundaries; and that
they strive to stabilize their own communication ecosystem
yet need to respond to changes necessitated by the
emergence of new tools, practices, and contacts. We unpack
the implications of these tensions and suggest future design
The changing ecology of social media sites can also affect
the decisions people make about how to meet their
communication needs. According to recent work [10], 52%
of adult Internet users in the United States use two or more
social media applications, an increase from 42% just a year
earlier [10]. Zhang, Choudhury, and Grudin [53] studied
workers in a technology company over a five-year period
and found among other things that “churn,” or the rate of
abandonment for new social media sites, was high among
users, who would consistently return to Facebook. Forte et
al. [20] studied how teens in two high schools used social
media for information gathering, and found that teens used
a variety of social media sites, often simultaneously.
Researchers have previously found that people use multiple
communication tools to engage their communication needs.
In Haythornthwaite’s [26] media multiplexity theory, the
number of different communication tools that a person used
to communicate with someone else was related to the
closeness of that relationship.
Author Keywords
Social media; media ecology; content sharing; boundary
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g., HCI):
Over the past 10 years, the social media ecology has
changed radically in both the types of people who have
access to social media sites and the range of social media
tools available to them. As recently as 2005, only 8% of the
Internet using adult population in the United States used
social network sites (SNSs) [7], whereas more recently
Through interviews with 29 social media users, we address
issues of how people perceive and manage the range of
social media tools available to them, in a context where
tools like email and telephone are also available. We find
that, similar to previous work on managing social media
relationships, people balance a variety of dimensions in
considering which tools they will use to meet their
communication needs. On top of the need to balance
audience and content, we find that people consider how
different sites enable permeation of content to multiple
audiences and document how they react to the emergence
of new social media tools that may threaten the stability of
the communication ecosystem they have constructed.
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Abstracting with credit is permitted. To copy otherwise, or republish, to
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CHI’16, May 07-12, 2016, San Jose, CA, USA © 2016 ACM.
ISBN 978-1-4503-3362-7/16/05…$15.00
Front Stage on Social Media
#chi4good, CHI 2016, San Jose, CA, USA
Negotiating Individual Differences
others behave and their perceptions of what other users
expect [14, 8]. Perceived norms pose another constraint on
people in terms of what to share and how to share, as some
behaviors are considered inappropriate in particular
contexts [35].
Over the past several years, there has been a rapid shift in
both the number of people who use social media sites and
the availability of sites to them. In 2005, only 8% of
Internet using adults in the United States used social media
sites [7]. By 2013, that number had grown to 73% of
people. Social media use is even more ubiquitous when
considered internationally, where on average 77% of
Internet users are social media users [51]. The increased
access to computer networks and the increased
sophistication and decreased cost of mobile devices are just
two factors that have lead to widespread adoption of social
media sites, many of which serve as a common platform for
people to meet their communication and information needs.
Negotiating Diverse Communication Needs
As in offline settings, people have diverse communicative
needs to fulfill when they communicate online. Goffman
[23] argues that people have nuanced needs for sharing
information and that they must consider specific social
contexts and the effects of their self-disclosures. Compared
to the offline context, communicating in online social
contexts poses many challenges. In fact, people need to
“imagine” their audiences when sharing on social media
[33], and they are not good at conceptualizing who their
audience is or how big it is [6]. Given the difficulty of
imagining one’s audience in a social media site, and that
most social media sites collapse all connections into one
common stream, friction about what to share to whom, or
“context collapse” [34, 50], has become endemic.
As more people adopt social media applications,
demographic and psychosocial factors become important
for understanding how people experience social media
differently. In early studies of SNS use, Hargittai [25]
found that race and parental education (a common proxy for
economic status) predicted differential adoption of early
SNSs, which she warned could be a sign that inequality was
being replicated online. Others have looked at urban/rural
differences in MySpace adoption [22], personality
differences in Facebook adoption [38], and cultural
differences in “commitment” to adopt Facebook [49].
Other factors further complicate users’ decisions around
social media use. Although interactions among users can
happen in short bursts of almost synchronous activity,
Hogan [27] applied the exhibition approach to highlight the
role of data persistence, arguing that social media is an
enduring “exhibition” of one’s online identity. Following
his approach, recent work around deletion behaviors
provide evidence that people do need to re-evaluate how
they use social media and that they take incremental efforts
to manage their content sharing [39,44,55]. In addition,
people’s social relationships and social circles change over
time as do site norms [35]. Together, these changes suggest
that understanding user practices around multiple site use is
a worthy scholarly endeavor.
Not only does diversity of individual characteristics shape
who adopts different social media tools, but it also affects
their motivations and behaviors within those systems. As
Smock et al. [42] point out, “SNS use has been traditionally
treated as homogeneous, implicitly operating under the
assumption that users are employing the same set of
features in the same manner” (p. 2323). However,
numerous studies have shown that use within social media
sites is very diverse. Joinson [30] conducted exploratory
work on early Facebook users and found that motivations to
connect to others on the site could come from a desire to
connect to old friends, having shared identities, or wanting
to share pictures. Similarly Ellison and colleagues [15]
found that people had different, distinct “connection
strategies” on Facebook, like initiating new relationships
vs. seeking social information about the people around
them. Papacharissi and Mendelson [37] used the Uses and
Gratifications perspective to show Facebook users valued
very different potential benefits of the site, such as
entertainment or social support.
Multiple Platforms Provide Opportunities
Even though any single social media tool might be limited
by its audience, norms of use, and features, the availability
of multiple platforms provide new opportunities for people
to negotiate their diverse needs and differences. The fact
that people might adopt different sites means that we are
less likely to find everyone we want to connect with in one
“place.” Recent studies found that using multiple sites help
to resolve this access issue: participants in Lindley’s study
valued the fact that different social media provide easy
access to different social networks [32] and Vitak et al. [50]
found people switch communication channels when they
want to reach different social groups. Research also shows
people attempt to resolve “context collapse” by using
multiple social media and compartmentalizing their social
media use [48]; people would intentionally make their other
account information hard to find for some of their contacts
(a strategy called “practical obscurity” [43]).
Adding to this complexity, the heterogeneity in individual
characteristics and motivations need to be negotiated in the
context of specific site norms. Norms are “customs,
traditions, standards, rules, values, fashions and all other
criteria of conduct which are standardized as a
consequence of the contact of individuals” [36]. Research
shows norms matter in the context of social media use –
even though users might approach the same site with
different motivations or needs, they are affected by how
The diversity of site norms actually provides new
opportunities for people to manage different types of
interactions or curate different identities. For example,
Front Stage on Social Media
#chi4good, CHI 2016, San Jose, CA, USA
recent studies show that Facebook was more valued for
sharing major life events and one’s highly curated identity
compared to other sites [32, 54] whereas Snapchat is valued
for sharing small moments and mundane aspects of
everyday life compared to sites that afford more data
persistence [4, 52]. It is now common for people to go to
different sites in order to share different content [2, 28].
range while balancing
composition in our sample.
Participants were then invited to our research lab for a 60minute in-depth, face-to-face interview. The interview
involved questions about participants’ daily communication
practices with a focus on their use of different social media
and their perceptions of how the communication experience
was similar or different across different communication
platforms. In the first part of the interview, participants
were asked to perform a card-sorting task, where they
created their own set of cards to list all the “modes of
communication” they use (one card per channel) and then
organized their cards into piles and described the
relationship between these communication platforms. This
activity was designed as a way to encourage participants to
react to and reflect upon their communication practices and
media use. We intentionally used the wording “modes of
communication” in prompting the card-sorting activity,
because we did not want to prime people to think of some
as communication platforms but not others. In the second
With more platforms available and people approaching
their use of platforms differently, it is less likely that one’s
communicative needs could be met on any single platform.
Therefore, we are motivated to investigate how individuals
leverage multiple social media platforms to fulfill their own
communication needs, negotiating diverse needs in the
presence of others and different site norms.
Existing work has explored the general pattern of multiple
social media use for particular contexts (e.g., organizational
context as in [53]; college students as in [45]) and different
demographic segments [10]). Although this literature
provides evidence that people do leverage multiple social
media sites to fulfill their communication goals, our focus is
on individuals and how their perceptions and practices are
supported and negotiated when leveraging different social
media: If people’s usage pattern of social media is
overlapping yet different [29], where exactly do people
draw boundaries between different platforms? If it is hard
to have any single platform fulfill one’s communicative
needs, how do people experience the constraints and
opportunities represented by different platforms and
channels? If people often need to decide to adopt new social
media sites or to migrate from one to another, what drives
their decisions and how does this affect their overall
strategy of social media use?
To answer the call from some recent work [e.g., 48] to
explore “how sites are compared and contrasted in each
individual’s everyday use,” we designed a qualitative study
to explore the following research questions:
RQ1: How do participants make decisions about which
platform to use?
RQ2: How do people manage communication across
multiple social media platforms?
We recruited participants living in and around a Midwestern city in the US. We disseminated the recruitment
advertisements on Craigslist, a local newspaper, and posters
at local restaurants, libraries, and supermarkets. Participants
were first directed to an online survey to screen for desired
characteristics and were asked demographic questions (age,
gender, race, etc.) as well as items about the social media
tools they frequently and actively used and how often they
accessed these tools. Information from the screening survey
was used to screen participants. We understand that media
experience could vary to a great extent in different age
groups, so we aimed to recruit people from a broad age
1, 2, 3, 6,
9, 18
1, 2, 8, 9,
1, 2, 3, 9
1, 6, 9
1, 2, 3, 5,
9, 8, 9, 10
1, 5, 6, 7,
9 16, 17
1, 2, 3, 6,
10, 12, 13
1, 4, 5, 6,
1, 2, 3, 8
1, 3, 5, 7
1, 2, 3, 8
1, 2, 8, 9,
1, 2, 3, 5,
6, 7, 8, 9
1, 2, 3, 9,
1, 5, 6, 7,
1, 2, 3, 5,
6, 8
1, 5, 6, 9
1, 2, 3, 5
1, 2, 3, 5
1, 2, 3, 4,
5, 6, 7, 8
1, 2, 3, 4,
5, 9
1, 6, 7
1, 5, 7, 9
1, 2, 3, 5
1, 5, 9, 11
1, 2, 5, 6,
1, 3, 5
1, 3, 5, 6
Table 1: Participants and Their Frequently Used Social
1=Facebook, 2=Twitter, 3=Instagram, 4=Snapchat, 5=Pinterest,
6=Linkedin, 7=Google+, 8=Tumblr, 9=Youtube, 10=Foursquare,
11=Reddit, 12=Path, 13=Flipboard, 14=MocoSpace, 15=Fetlife,
16=DateHookUp, 17=AtlasQuest, 18=LiveLeak
Front Stage on Social Media
#chi4good, CHI 2016, San Jose, CA, USA
part of the interview, we prompted participants to reflect on
their experience of using different communication
platforms for specific communication scenarios, as well as
for specific relationships. Participants were also asked to
visit any archives of communication or traces of online
activity either on desktop computers or on their own mobile
phones, to help them draw examples to talk about in
responding to our questions. All card-sorting results were
photographed, and all interviews were audio recorded and
then transcribed.
making practices around content sharing. Our data echo
previous work in highlighting the role of expected audience
and norms around content sharing on different sites, but our
findings also explicate how these two factors intersect,
affecting platform choices.
29 participants participated in the study (18 Female, 11
male; age range from 22-53). The frequently used social
media sites by our participants include Facebook, Twitter,
Instagram, Linkedin, and Snapchat. Participants were given
$35 for their participation. Table 1 shows age, gender, and
frequently used social media platform for each participant.
Participants experienced tension when their social needs did
not align with a particular technical solution (i.e., sharing to
one particular social media platform). Social needs include
the desire a reach a particular audience and to share a
particular kind of message or content. With regard to social
media, we found “audience” and “content” are two primary
considerations that simultaneously drive platform choices –
but often these needs could not be met by the same channel.
Participants described their need to reach specific
audiences and to share specific content while noting the
inherent tension at play when these needs could not be met
in the same channel.
Audiences differ across platforms
The card-sorting activities were intended to serve as
prompts for eliciting concrete communication cases to be
discussed in the interview; since participants were asked to
elaborate on their card-sorting results in the interview, and
they talked about their use of communication platforms
throughout the whole process, photographs from cardsorting sessions were analyzed together with the interview
data and we do not differentiate between the two sources of
data in our analysis. We used iterative coding to analyze all
the interview data. There were three stages of our iterative
coding process: inductive coding and codebook
development, recoding of the interviews based on this
codebook, and association of quotes with different themes.
All co-authors met in a series of face-to-face meetings to
discuss all the codes and emerging themes.
As has been noted in other work, in some cases our
participants selected platforms based on intended audience.
For instance, this participant attributed her decision-making
on where to post a photo to a decision about audience: ‘Oh,
I just want my friends to see this,’ or ‘I just want my
younger cousins,’ or ‘I want everyone to see this.’” (P25).
This strategy of “segmenting audiences by sites” is
consistent with what Stutzman and Hartzog described in
their work [43]. We find people are creating conceptual
links between platform and audience as they consciousl …
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