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Summary Article: Social Media
From Sociology of Work: An Encyclopedia

Social media—online platforms used for communication, networking, and collaboration—are rapidly entering the contemporary workplace. They are used for finding jobs, building collaborative networks, increasing productivity, and building corporate brands. Workers use them to maintain connections with co-workers, friends, and family while at work and to build and maintain extended professional networks. Social media are changing patterns of communication in the workplace and blurring the boundaries between work and private life, formal and informal work, and corporate structure and worker identity.

Social Media: Who Uses Them and When?

The umbrella term social media embraces the many forms of networked communication that allow widespread sharing of information; linking to friends, family, and co-workers; and collaboration in both formal and informal networks. Social media can be defined narrowly as the networked forms of communication that individuals use to communicate to and with their personal networks (e.g., Facebook or LinkedIn), to share content (e.g., YouTube), or for “microblogging” to a broader (but still limited) group of “followers” (e.g., Twitter). More broadly, social media can also be understood to include all of the platforms that make group collaboration possible (e.g., Wikis and commercial collaboration platforms).

Although social media platforms began to emerge in the late 1990s, the most widely used and best-known social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter, opened to public use in 2006. However, new platforms and uses for social media are evolving at a very rapid pace, with innovation measured in months, not years.

Social media have different forms and functions and are used differently by social groups. Sharing and networking sites like Facebook create a very broad platform for exchanging all kinds of content, from personal information, interests, and news to “friends” (some scholars capitalize “Friends” to distinguish online from face-to-face relationships). Twitter is a microblogging platform, which means that users can publish short posts of up to 140 characters to a group of “followers” who must subscribe to an individual's feed. Twitter has rapidly evolved into a personalized news service, in which individuals can follow other people but also topics and issues. The best-known collaboration platform is Wikipedia, but “wikis” are used more generally to build and share knowledge socially, including for organizing work. Other specialized collaboration platforms are used for project coordination within and among organizations and are increasingly important for networks of freelancers to find partners and to coordinate work.

In 2012, Facebook claimed 850 million active users worldwide, and Twitter almost 200 million; Facebook accounted for 80 percent of social media traffic worldwide. Microblogging (Twitter) was also growing at a rapid pace. As Anne Lenhart and colleagues note, Facebook was an instant success among younger users: by 2009, 72 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 and about 40 percent of adults over 30 used social network sites. The use of multiple profiles has grown rapidly as well, but there are gender differences. Men are more likely than women to maintain a profile on the work-oriented LinkedIn, while the reverse is true for Facebook. There are not large differences by race, ethnicity, or income (although slightly higher use by those with incomes above $50,000). Those with some college are somewhat more likely than those with a high school diploma or less to use social media, suggesting there may be differences within the workplace by occupational strata.

About half of all corporations with formal policies ban social media in the workplace. Data on workplace use remain sparse and uneven, but indirect evidence suggests large increases in social network use in corporations annually, with multifold increases beginning in 2010. These increases suggest that social media use is becoming integrated in the workplace communication ecology in ways that make it difficult to disentangle “personal” from “workplace” media use.

Social Media and the Labor Market

In a classic study of how people find jobs, sociologist Mark Granovetter observed that people do not receive new job information from their friends and families (strong ties) but from more distant, or weak, ties (e.g., friends of friends). The principle is that the people we are closest to already know the things we know, but to get new information, we need to tap into other, more distant networks. New forms of social media have formalized these weak-tie networks, and increasingly people find out new information about work through Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. For those under 40, social media have transformed the job market. LinkedIn creates a weak-tie network for job seeking; employment portals like function as both résumé exchanges and social media networks for job information; and portals like have transformed the process of selling and marketing, opening up weak-tie networks to systematic and intensive exploitation.

These extended weak-tie networks underpin the freelance and part-time labor markets, especially for those industries that are themselves Internet-centered. Programmers, designers, information architects, and entrepreneurs use mainstream platforms like LinkedIn but also smaller, specialized platforms (e.g., networks for designers to show their work) to create labor markets for development teams. More and more work in this sector is conducted through this networked, semiformal market structure in which short- or medium-term teams are assembled for projects and then dissolve at the end.

As Facebook becomes more central for job seeking, it also carries increasing risk, especially for younger job seekers who have grown up with it. Facebook does not allow users to permanently delete information, so many employers are now using it as a screen for hiring. Posts and pictures that are personally embarrassing, political opinions, and the like are now all available for potential employers, introducing the permanent necessity of managing one's social media profile as a potential condition of employment. Recently, the media have reported that some employers are asking job applicants for their Facebook password so that they can examine their Facebook pages in order to use that information to make a Decision about whether or not to offer the applicant a job. The same social media that create the weak-tie networks necessary for finding jobs can also undermine that search.

Social Media in the Workplace

Many companies are facing a threshold choice: integrate social media into the workplace or attempt to eliminate or severely limit its use. It is becoming increasingly difficult to ban social media use because collaboration across formal and informal networks is moving to the center of work in established companies as well as smaller ones. Although there are many forms of internal corporate communication networks (intranets, e-mail), social media are increasingly used to coordinate work team collaboration across space and time. Social media can create emergent work structures within existing corporate communication frameworks, but they are also media by which work, more generally, may be transformed from a structure based on vertical hierarchy and control to one based on more horizontal formal and informal network management.

Two executives meet through the Teliris Virtua Live Telepresence, used in a wide spectrum of conferencing scenarios. Different forms of social media are increasingly used to coordinate work team collaboration across space and time.

As social media use increases in the workplace, it also increases the competing demands on workers’ attention. Almost all workers in environments that use information (including service industries) use networked computers. Although lower-paid customer service work is heavily monitored for personal use, workers in mid-level occupations spend much of their work time on open Web portals (including company intranets), general Web searching (e.g., Google), and collaborative networks. As social media are introduced into this mix, there are several consequences.

The first is an increase in multitasking, as workers switch across multiple forms of networked media in the course of daily work. Research by E. Ophir and others suggests that multitasking in general reduces attention and productivity and, increasingly, social media are at the center of multitasking, sometimes as a part of work but also as an escape from work, allowing workers to blend private and work life in new ways.

Second, through social media, personal and family life are drawn into the workplace in a regularly accessible way. Friends and family are “always on,” at least potentially. By using social media, workers can now participate in extended friendship and family networks at intervals throughout the day. It is not clear what effects this will have on attention, loyalty, and productivity. As noted, women use social media at higher rates than men. Beyond higher usage rates, the gendered effects of social media in the workplace have not been well explored.

One of the few systematic studies of workplace use of social media, by Anne Archambault and Jonathan Grudin of Microsoft, explores changes in social media use among Microsoft's 90,000 employees from 2008 to 2011. Although the study has limits—Microsoft is a high-tech company, most of its employees are early adopters of technology, and women constitute only one-quarter of the workforce—it is the most complete portrait we have for a large company. Using a representative sample, the authors found that social networking was widespread in the company and growing rapidly. One-third of employees used Facebook in 2008; by 2011, more than 80 percent were users. More than half of the employees used Facebook daily, with use by women slightly more likely than by men.

Not surprisingly, younger workers had higher rates of Facebook adoption and use. Adoption of LinkedIn was flat and skewed toward older workers, suggesting that it is used primarily for job seeking among those who already have employment networks. Archambault and Grudin found that Twitter use in the workplace grew more slowly and that many employees were not aware that “hashtags” could be used on Twitter to search for specific content. Among those who were aware, using Twitter as a search medium provided a “pulse” on the stream of conversation on the Web and allowed them to dip into the stream in precise ways and times of their choosing. They described the difference as a shift from static-Web information seeking to a dynamic search stream. This use of Twitter is even more advanced in creative and high-tech industries.

A one-year study of a 300-person company by Thea Turner and colleagues found that use of social media had not reduced traditional communication channels, including face to face, phone, and e-mail. The study did find a rapid increase in use of social media, including Twitter. Social media use crosscut the contexts in which workers used them, with LinkedIn used for professional contacts and Facebook used for maintaining workplace friendships and more “lightweight” professional contact. Both blogs and social media connected workers in this smaller company to professional communities outside.

Corporate Structure

The widespread use of social media suggests that it is becoming a permanent part of the workplace landscape. This will likely lead to a transformation of corporate structure, as service and information companies continue to dominate the ranks of top employers. It is now virtually impossible to conduct daily work in these companies without the use of social media, and the interpenetration of personal and work uses will only grow.

All major companies now have social media strategies for branding, marketing, and promotion. This has led to a further integration of personal social media use with corporate mission and image, as employees are drawn into strategic branding initiatives. Formally, marketing and media departments systematically monitor social media mentions of companies, but employees are also encouraged to help build company brands informally. This integration gives employees new power to leak inside information that can tarnish a company's image, disclose trade secrets, or expose employment practices, which can circulate virally on the Web.

Both individual worker adoption of social media and corporate needs for formal and informal collaboration suggest that social media use in the workplace will continue to grow, reshaping the boundaries between personal life and work, formal and informal hierarchies, and the ability of employers to control the work process.

See Also:

Boundaries between Home and Market, Blurred

Computer-Mediated Work


Granovetter, Mark

Impression Management

Information Technology Workers

Job Searching and Preparation

Media Workers

Networked Organizations

Project Management

Service Work



Work/Life Balance

Further Readings
  • Archambault, Anne; Jonathan, Grudin. “A Longitudinal Study of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter Use.” Association for Computing Machinery, CHI Austin, TX, 2012.
  • Ellison, Nicole B.; Danah, Boyd. “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, v. 13/1 (2007).
  • Granovetter, Mark. Getting a Job: A Study of Contacts and Careers. Harvard University Press Cambridge, MA, 1974.
  • Lenhart, Anne, et al. “Social Media and Mobile Internet Use Among Teens and Young Adults.” Pew Internet and American Life Project Washington, DC, 2010.
  • Turner, Thea, et al. “Exploring the Workplace Communication Ecology.” In Proceedings of the 28th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Association for Computing Machinery Atlanta, GA, 2010.
  • Lewis A. Friedland
    University of Wisconsin, Madison
    © 2013 SAGE Publications, Inc

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