‘Selfies’ just one part of life in ever-shifting social media

Sure, it was a little gimmicky, but it should have come as no surprise last month that Oxford Dictionaries chose “selfie” as its word of the year for 2013.

The word, which Oxford defines as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website,” is one example of how we’re currently using social media and why those who try to avoid it can find it vacuous and time-wasting.

Every day, more and more of us are carrying this crazy-powerful, do-all computer — the smartphone — in our pockets and purses. Why not use it to do what people have been doing for thousands of years: document your place in space and time at a given moment? That’s not new, but being able to share it with the world in less than five seconds from practically anywhere is still a jarring change that many of our brains haven’t adapted to yet.

That could be said for a lot of what’s happened in the current age of social media, which began to go mainstream around 2007-2008. Piggybacking on the mass adoption of smartphones, tablets and shrinking photo hardware, the era of social media shows no sign of going away or even transitioning into something else soon. It’s been more than a fad, though the landscape shifts and changes from year to year.

The Big Two

Every few months, you’ll see news stories suggesting that users are abandoning Facebook in droves or that people are getting burned out on the ever-quickening pace of Twitter. There seems to be an obsession with whether teens are leaving Facebook to avoid their nosy parents and if Facebook’s perpetual privacy failings will lead to a user exodus.

Let’s start with Facebook. The company says it has about 1.19 billion monthly active users.

If Facebook still has tons of users and its stock is doing great, what could be the problem? This is anecdotal, but what I experience myself and what I hear from other friends and social media users is that Facebook hasn’t been aggressive enough in making its mobile apps great despite some revamping this year.

Twitter, on the other hand, feels like it’s peaking. It successfully went public in November, had huge international growth and boasts more than 200 million active users. It made deals with the NFL to show game highlights in Tweets and has of late been pushing itself as a source for news and a place to gather for live events discuss them as a community.

Is Twitter a communications platform or a new media company? Twitter itself may not know; historically, much of Twitter’s culture has been driven by users, not the company’s management. My sense is that due to some Twitter design tweaks, more users are finding ways to have lengthier conversations on Twitter instead of just spouting drive-by commentary.

Photo phenomenon

Instagram (owned by Facebook) continued growing to at least 150 million users currently and, by adding short-form videos of 15 seconds or less to the service, managed to knock the wind out of Twitter’s fledgling six-second video service, Vine. Instagram’s square-shaped photo format has become so influential that Apple’s latest iPhone software version added an option to snap photos that way.

Instagram succeeded by keeping things simple and keeping ads unobtrusive and had its busiest day ever on Thanksgiving.

Less successful this year was Flickr, an old-school photo social network owned by Yahoo that rolled out a major redesign and an offer of practically unlimited space for its users. After some initial excitement, Flickr faded to the background as the year went on.

So why should we care about these social media services and how people are bouncing from one to the other or abandoning them? Because it can tell us a lot about how people who spend time on the Web use that time and what they value.

In 2013, selfies were just one part of an ever-evolving social media universe.