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What is social media, how important is it, and which websites and apps are the best?


What Is Social Media?

Social media refers to a variety of technologies that facilitate the sharing of ideas and information among their users. From Facebook and Instagram to X platform (formerly Twitter) and YouTube, more than 4.7 billion people use social media, equal to roughly 60% of the world's population. In early 2023, 94.8% of users accessed chat and messaging apps and websites, followed closely by social platforms, with 94.6% of users.

Key Takeaways

  • Social media is digital technology that allows the sharing of ideas and information, including text and visuals, through virtual networks and communities.
  • Social media typically features user-generated content that lends itself to engagement via likes, shares, comments, and discussion.
  • More than 4.7 billion people around the world use social media.
  • Social media is credited with helping people build community and faulted for facilitating disinformation and hate speech.
  • Social media is also an increasingly important part of many companies' marketing campaigns.
  • The largest social media platforms worldwide are Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, and WeChat.

How Social Media Originated and Evolved

Social media started out as a way for people to interact with friends and family but soon expanded to serve many different purposes. In 2004, MySpace was the first network to reach 1 million monthly active users.

Social media participation exploded in the years that followed with the entry of Facebook and Twitter (now X platform). Businesses gravitated toward these platforms in order to reach an audience instantly on a global scale.

According to Global Web Index, 46% of internet users worldwide get their news through social media. That compares to 40% of users who view news on news websites. Gen Z and Millennials were most likely to view news on social sites versus other generations.

Social media plays a key role in many businesses' marketing strategies, not surprising given the sheer number of hours people spend each day on social websites and apps. At the same time, social media is an ever-changing field, with relatively recent apps such as TikTok, Signal, and Clubhouse joining the ranks of established social networks like Facebook, YouTube, X platform, and Instagram.

What Social Media Is Used for Today

Social media platforms are often divided into six categories: social networking, social bookmarking, social news, media sharing, microblogging, and online forums.

These diverse platforms serve a vast range of purposes and user interests. Some appeal to hobbyists, others to people in their work lives. People use them to find others across the globe who share their political or other views. Entertainers use social media to engage with fans, politicians with voters, charities with donors. Governments often turn to social media to convey vital information during emergencies.

For businesses, social media has become a key marketing tool. Companies use it to find and engage with customers, drive sales through advertising and promotion, identify fast-moving consumer trends, provide customer service or support, and collect data on users, sometimes surreptitiously.

94.6%

Percentage of internet users age 16 to 64 who visited a social networking site in the past month.

Pros and Cons of Social Media

Social media platforms allow people to access information in real time, to connect with others, and to find niche communities. At its best, it makes the world more interconnected.

On the other hand, social media is also very good at spreading disinformation, creating polarization, and even causing harmful psychological effects.

Still, according to a 2019 survey by Pew Research Center, people's use of social media is correlated with having more friends and more diverse personal networks, especially within emerging economies. Some 80% of teenagers say social media allows them to feel more connected to their peers, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17. Overall, one in three said that social media has had a mostly positive effect on them, while 59% said it had neither a positive nor a negative effect.

At the same time, many teens' use, and overuse, of social media has raised questions about its effect on their physical and mental health by "distracting them, disrupting their sleep, and exposing them to bullying, rumor spreading, unrealistic views of other people's lives, and peer pressure," as the Mayo Clinic notes.

Businesses, meanwhile, have found social media to be an often effective and relatively inexpensive way to reach consumers and build an image for their brands. According to Facebook, more than 200 million small businesses use its service for various purposes. Separately, close to 90% of marketers say they use Facebook for promotion. 

In 2022, social media and search advertising spending made up roughly 55% of overall ad spending globally. It is also the fastest-growing category across advertising channels.

The Top 10 Social Media Platforms Worldwide

These were the most widely used social media providers as of January 2023, according to DataReportal:

  1. Facebook (2.96 billion users)
  2. YouTube (2.51 billion users)
  3. WhatsApp (2 billion users)
  4. Instagram (2 billion users)
  5. WeChat (1.31 billion users)
  6. TikTok (1.05 billion users)
  7. Facebook Messenger (931 million users)
  8. Douyin (715 million users)
  9. Telegram (700 million users)
  10. Snapchat (635 million users)

Interestingly, two that are especially well-known in the U.S.—X platform and Pinterest—didn't make the top 10 list globally. X platform was 14th, with 556 million users worldwide, while Pinterest was 15th with 445 million.

What Is the Most Popular Social Media?

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Globally, the most popular social media site is Facebook, with close to 3 billion users, according to one recent estimate.

How Much Time Do People Spend on Social Media?

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Internet users age 16 to 64 worldwide spent a daily average of 2 hours and 31 minutes on social media as of late 2022, according to DataReportal, which adds that "social media now accounts for its greatest ever share of total online time, with almost four in every 10 minutes spent online now attributable to social media activities."

What Is Social Media Marketing?

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Social media marketing is the use of social networks as a sales and marketing tool. Companies with products or services to promote can go beyond traditional advertising to build an online presence and engage directly with their customers.

In particular, social media marketing has opened up opportunities for local businesses to reach out to potential customers without spending a fortune on ad placement.

The Bottom Line

For better or worse, social media has reshaped our lives, capturing more than 4.7 billion users worldwide and counting. From a business perspective, it has also revolutionized commerce and seems likely to continue to do so.

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