Using or being used –the role of users in social media


total active accounts on the top social network in each country



The term “Using or being used” is a paradox question in web 2.0 era. The subject of this question is users of social media. Are social media users are controllers or under control by social media companies? Indeed, we can see social media as empowering in which users can create the content or we can see it as a tool for internet companies to utilize the value of users. Instead of phrasing this question as binary opposites, work by Sam Hinton and Larissa Hjorth(2013),have attempted to give a rounded analysis about the role of users in social media standing at a neutral point. As Sam Hinton and Larissa Hjorth observes:

 The tensions between control and freedom should not be treated as absolute position where you take a side and fight it out to the end. Instead, these represent extreme ends of a spectrum in which complex interactions play out.(Hinton, S., & Hjorth, L. 2013,p.30)


The theory and empirical evidence

The authors of  understanding social media analyze two roles of users in web 2.0 respectively, users as controllers and users as being controlled(or used).

1.users as controllers

Sam Hinton and Larissa Hjorth(2013) first point out the central idea of this standpoint is that the internet overwhelms old logics of control and power(top-down) and the majority people nowadays can produce or control media. Because the internet decentralised content production and media control as well.  This leads some scholars think the internet is democratising and emancipatory because it empowers individuals.

Then they illustrate the long history of empowerment narrative and highlighted these ideas are always based in western context. One of influential works they demonstrated  is the declaration presented by John Perry Barlow—A Cyberspace Independence Declaration(1996).

Sam Hinton and Larissa Hjoth(2013) also state that after two decades, the emergence of web 2.0 and mobile internet changed the demography of internet users, and there are still some ideas focus on social media empower the individual. In this new environment, social media enable individuals with expanded access to information. Search engines(Google)provide an quick access to many questions, SNSs creates new forms of intimacy and relationships, individuals can create their own content on YouTube and then share them with millions of strange people who sit in front of their screens.

Furthermore, social media has played an increasingly crucial role in political world. The authors put forward the Arab Spring as an example. The Arab Spring was a revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests (both non-violent and violent), riots, and civil war in the Arab world that began on 18 December 2010 in Tunisia with the Tunisian Revolution, and spread throughout the countries of the Arab League and its surroundings. (Wikipedia,2015)


Social media indeed played a part in the Arab Spring. Most people in other regions didn’t know there are many uprising revolutions happened in Middle East in the past 20 years before 2010,but the dictators succeed in concealing human voice. But under web2.0 environment, the dictators can’t anticipate their most powerful enemy—social media platforms which give people freedom, transparency, criticism right and creates an age of social collective.

2.Users as being controlled

Cast in the opposite light, the authors point out how social media establishes new power models while undermining existing ones.Frankly speaking,the original concern of digital technologies was increasing centralized management.The evolution of digital computers is a response to the need for increased control in industrialized countries.(Beniger,1986).The control of social media manifests in several aspects;

  • Dependency-It is not  surprising to see a person(especially a teenager)in this digital era feeling extremely disappointed and lost without access to SNSs. This then makes social media companies control individuals easily.
  • Privacy-every users’ browse records, location, social nets and self-information can be collected and recorded easily in social media sites especially when we compare the situation with traditional media forms(television, broadcast).The spying on individual’s information indeed compromises every single user’s privacy.
  • Commercialization of private data(or information)-a person’s online information about oneself and his or her online habits are normally collected and repurposed by internet companies. In this light, all data created by users is valuable for companies to target their audience efficiently and improve their businesses.

More than that, they use Wendy Chun’s views to illustrate the paradox between control and freedom. Chun(2006) states that the meaning of freedom has gradually been shifted to incorporate control as an implicit precondition. In other words, this two things are intertwined. SNSs in fact offers users a platform with many services to control their own online environment. Every user has “MY OWN SPACE” on a social media platform, the authors highlight the term “platform” in their excellent book to draw readers’ attention about thinking about web 2.0 in a new way, as Tarleton Gillespie(2010) suggests that a platform is a progressive and egalitarian arrangement.For instance, every user on Facebook can organize his or her own page on which users can govern their contact lists and hide away the information by contacts they don’t want to see, in this space, users are the center of everything and gain enough freedom. The authors mention the 10 principles of Facebook to prove how much freedom social media provide to users.

from http://www.facebook.com/principles.php

Meanwhile, social media platforms play another role except empowering users. By thinking deeply about why we can use Google for free, we can get a better understanding about the users’ role as being controlled.What lies behind the simple search page of Google?The answer is control.Every single search record can be collected by Google company,which can be the main revenue source of Google.What advertisers purchase won’t appear in the actual search results,users can only check them out in strategic places.The strategy of Google exactly reflects a fundamental web2.0 business model is that users are actually the source of value.(Hinton,S.,&Hjorth,L.2013,p29)

In conclusion,the authors state that most often social media is both controlling and empowering at the same time,in an uneasy relationship where a certain amount of exploitation is negotiated as the price for a certain amount of empowerment.(Hinton,S.,&Hjorth,L.2013)

The theory and my online campaign

My online campaign is storylands-Xinjiang ,which is aim to show many aspects of the society of Xinjiang and encouraging more travellers to explore this mysterious land and share their own experiences.

As the initiator of this campaign, the theory of using or being used served as a important part of my promotion actions and this two roles of users are intertwined in my campaign promotion.

  • Me as controller-For promoting my own campaign, I set the profile of accounts or pages for my campaign,including basic information,web design(home page image),etc.I can organize everything on my own pages,from posting content in different forms to targeting audience by using hashtags (Weibo, Instagram).
Facebook page for storylandsXinjiang

use of hashtags

And the social media management tool Hootsuite enabled me to do my promotion efficiently and systematically.



  •  My audience as controllers-My audience has many choices on my pages,to follow my online campaign,to just have a view,to thumb up or share the content to their own social media platforms.They can even participate in my campaign by creating their own content about my theme. By adding hashtags in their posts,they can engage with my campaign easily.
  • My audience as being used-the viewing records can be collected by some social media management tools such as hootsuite and this function is also available on Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter).All these data helped me adjust my promotion plan and target my audience precisely.In this light, my audience group plays a role as being used and data and content created by them is indeed a source of value for me.



In conclusion,as the authors(2013) state that the tensions between control and freedom are not a  question with two absolute position and in real social media practice, control and freedom always interact with each other.


Beniger, J.R.(1986) The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society . Cambridge,MA: Harvard  University Press

Chun,W(2006) Control and Freedom.Cambridge,MA:MIT Press

Hinton, S., & Hjorth, L. (2013). Introduction to Social Media Understanding Social Media (pp. 21-31). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Brown,H.,Guskin,E.,Mitchell,A.(2012,November 28).The Role of Social Media in the Arab Spring Retrieved from http://www.journalism.org/2012/11/28/role-social-media-arab-uprisings/






5 thoughts on “Using or being used –the role of users in social media

  1. Thank you for your inspiring article, juliejunyizhou!
    Your discussions on “using or being used” in Web 2.0 era have provided us a comprehensive analysis on the role of social media users.
    The paradox of control and being controlled in digital networks is a popular and unsolved question. It is surprising that you refer to the work by Sam Hinton and Larissa Hjorth (2013) and indicate its neutral perspective.

    Your well structured article has facilitated me to understand the academic framework. From Introduction, The theory and empirical evidence to The theory and my online campaign, I really appreciate your blend of logical argument and empirical examples.
    Plus, your images and videos have impressed me. Especially, the Declaration (1996) presented by John Perry Barlow and the video about social media and the Arab Spring have connected the abstract idea to history and reality.

    Regarding your social media campaign which aims to encourage more travelers to explore Xinjiang, will you utilize data of users to organize marketing campaigns such as selling local products in Xinjiang to your audiences?
    MECO6936 folks, are you tired of numerous marketing campaigns on social media? What is your opinion on being used online for interests of companies?


  2. My thoughts:

    The paradox you describe is an idea rarely discussed, and probably rarely thought about, by the average social media user.

    Although I have had conversations with family members about privacy matters associated with social media, it hasn’t extended to what we are giving by doing a simple like using the ‘search’ function on Google. I’ve never heard an old person say, “I don’t use social media because they collect data about your every click”.

    I believe people understand the superficial risks associated with participation on social channels and using the Internet. However, they do not consider data collection and retention and how this impacts on them. A notable example of when the issue received some public attention recently was the introduction of the Data Retention Bill 2015 in Australia. For the first time people were prompted to think about what is happening with the information being collected about their online habits.

    I have become more guarded about how I use social media. I block features like location services unless they are vital. I delete apps that I don’t use. I enable every privacy setting available to me.

    I see a tipping point in the future where people will become aware of how that data being collected is being used and decide to act. How will the average consumer respond? Time will tell…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi juliejunyizhou, I agree with your idea that in social media, users are controllers as well as being controlled.

    Your idea remind me a TED presentation I watched days before. In the presentation, Ulrike Schultze explains that “we construct technology, but technology also constructs us. We become what the technology allows us to become.”, which is the same as what the role of users in social media. On one hand we decide what we can do in social media. We can speak out what we are interested in. On the other hand, our behavior is regulated by. Firstly, users are regulated by policy and ethical regulations. And I support that some kind of regulation or control is necessary. For example, some opinions and actions will be harmful or criminal are not acceptable is social media. But the extent of control should be discussed. Secondly, sometimes users have to receive the information has already filtered by service provider. For example, when we do searching, the result list is decided by searching engine provider for their profit consideration. Actually, I think this is another control that users probably difficult to aware.

    Above all, consider the development of social media, indeed the public has more freedom to share information or individual idea. However, in some degree, I think there is no totally freedom.


  4. Thanks for the fascinating discussion on Web 2.0. Great example on ‘using’ and ‘being used’!

    During the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, we first started having more joys in the beginning as the Internet gave us more freedom to speak up our opinions through different channels, entitling us with more ‘control’ over the Internet.

    However, there are certain problems coming about along with the development of Web 2.0. As our relationship with Internet got more intimate and interactive (we provide more information though the Internet), the public and the private sectors such as Google started using our data for their own purposes. We users’ behaviours have been tracked, analysed and collected to predict our future behaviours. At the same time, user-generated content in Web 2.0 has facilitated the growing of more startups – tools such as Hootsuite or Google Analytics help them analyse consumers’ behaviours, facilitating the adjustment of their business strategy.

    In my view, user participation should be enhanced on the Internet. But users do need more rights to decide how the private data should be properly used – there is always a continuous battle in the ‘bubble’ of Internet!


  5. Indeed, in the shifting time between web 1.0 to web 2.0, we excited about the new experience social media given to us. However, there are problems we have to consider during this process, as you said in the topic, “using or being used”, the things we used to owned, end up owning us.

    I think one thing we have to consider about is we can never protect our information (or another term ‘our privacy’) from being used by other people. The biggest lie in 21st century is “I agree with ‘Term & Conditions'”, it just simply because the ‘term & condition’ tooooooo long! We provide our personal information and agreed on the ‘Term & Conditions’ when we sign into the communities online. And the deal is just like ‘if you do not agree with me, do not enter into the community’.
    Therefore, our privacy is the biggest concern on our online life. As we discuss many times in the class, there are way too many way for a company can get your information. None of the apps on the phone is 100% secured by the provided organization.

    At this point, I want to share a personal story that I felt really unsafe. About 1.5 years ago, I was browsing online for getting a new home broadband internet service, where I opened 2 tabs to compare their product, one is Optus and another one is Telstra. And two days later, I received call from Optus marketing manager, he was selling me their home broadband service. I did not log on my Optus account when I was looking at their page, however, in the end, they still manage to get my phone number.

    In my view, it is hard to protect our personal information online, and it is going to get even more harder.


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