Its not the App, it’€™s the Application

In a newly-rented office suite off Deansgate in the centre of Manchester, Jamil Khalil is building a new virtual space. Martin Hall reports

Jamil is one of our graduates – although his lecturers in Aeronautical Engineering would not have foreseen his launching a new social media app and neither would his contemporaries at Airbus, his first career. But Jamil is a concentrate of energy and enterprise and his invention – – offers a personalized assembly of hyperlinks that brings together a user’s chosen social media channels and favorite virtual places – a Garden of Online Delights. 

Jamil’s intended community includes university students, by-and-large the most intense and sophisticated users of social media. This year, applicants for places at British universities – 659 030, 4% more than at the same time last year – have received unprecedented attention through social media channels. Student recruitment teams have torn up the rule books in pitching for students, looking to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the The Student Room. Deakin University in Melbourne is a model for this new approach, with a Social Media Command and Innovation Centre that monitors, and responds to, all social media traffic, 24/7 (

This frenetic activity has left little time for reflection. Without reflection social media can appear trivial; a catchy hashtag, the number of likes on a Facebook page. And on reflection, there’s an evident tautology; media are, by definition “social”, so what are “social media”?

Here Christian Fuchs, University of Westminster, is helpful: “all computing systems, and therefore all web applications, as well as all forms of media can be considered as social because they store and transmit human knowledge that originates in social relations in society. But not all computing systems and web applications support direct communication between humans, in which at least two humans mutually exchange symbols that are interpreted as being meaningful”. 

If social media require mutual exchange using web-based technologies, then it’s not about the app but rather about the way it’s applied. This is Jamil Khalil’s insight and innovation. It’s not about Facebook or Google+ but rather about the ways in which these and any other apps, including those not yet invented, are brought together to build a personalized niche in cyberspace, an identity as the foundation for on-line communication.

Distinguishing between apps and the application of digital technology avoids the inconclusive debates about whether social media caused the Arab Spring or were responsible for the August 2011 riots in British cities. Careful studies such as Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain’s Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring debunks the idea of a “Facebook revolution” while showing the role that social media played across the Middle Eastern uprisings. And while Blackberry’s text messaging app was not responsible for the August 2011 riots, the Guardian’s Reading the Riots project has shown how digital communication technologies gave a new, specific, dimension to these confrontations. 

It is an evident truism that the telegraph and the telephone enabled new forms of interactive communication, overcoming the restrictions of distance and time. But there are also more profound ways in which new technologies mediate, rather than determine, how we communicate. Nietzsche was the first philosopher to use a typewriter, which he acquired in 1882, and was acutely aware of the difference between the flow of ideas from pen to paper and the indirect and mechanical process of selecting and striking keys. “The writing ball is a thing like me”, he wrote, “made of iron yet easily twisted on journeys”. Today, on-line publication – as the Royal Society’s insightful report, Science as an Open Enterprise – has shown, will change the relationship between data and its interpretation as hyperlinks embed connections with dynamic sources of information. We look ahead to wearable, and implanted, communication devices that will weld together humans and technology to create what Nietzsche would have seen as his Übermensch personified.

The dominant social media platforms have been around for a while now; Google since 1999, Facebook since 2004. The more recent tipping point that’s enabled an exponential-like increase in the adoption of social media has been the combination of prevalent and wireless bandwidth, massive low-cost digital storage and affordable, location-intelligent mobile devices. This is why social media have become so ubiquitous, touching everything in universities from student recruitment to learning resources and to the dissemination of research results.

These technologies, and the apps that use them, are neither inherently “good” nor “bad”. Facebook has been used to mobilize against oppressive regimes, and for bullying vulnerable people to suicide. The Internet has brought educational opportunities to marginalized communities and has enabled a massive expansion of pedophilia. Whatever the intentions or outcomes, the effect comes from the power of communication; as Manuel Castells’ puts it, “by influencing the human mind predominantly through multimedia networks of mass communication”. For utopians such as Castells, this offers new opportunities, the aspirations of the 2011 Occupy movements that he explores in his book Networks of Power and Hope. For dystopians like Christian Fuchs, todays commercially-driven social media platforms harvest and exploit personal information for profit and contribute to illegitimate surveillance (Social Media, 2013). But, whatever the use and whichever the perspective, social media are here to stay. They will change the way we work and the ways the institutions in which we work are organized. 

What form will these changes take? The digital revolution has been unpredictable and will continue to be so; the unprecedented speed of innovation disallows traditional deduction of causes from effects. For universities, we’ve already seen the radical transformation of scholarly communication, from modes of publication through to specialist social media platforms such as Academia. Social media are already an integral part of learning and teaching, and will continue to be so. There is intense interest in MOOCs. A milestone to watch will be when the big, venture capital funded outfits such as Cousera begin to monetize the massive amounts of information they have collected through their course enrollments. By April this year, Coursera alone had over 7 million sign-ups across over 640 courses; at this scale, the evolution of this learning platform into a profit-making concern has to disrupt the conventions of higher education. 

So how to predict further futures for social media? Don’t pay too much attention to conferences where all the speakers are over 30. Rather watch restless innovators like Jamil as they test their instincts against the viral possibilities across the Internet. Or, better still, watch what 14-year-olds are up to. They are our students of the future, and they will not be like us. 

Martin is currently Vice Chancellor of the University of Salford in Manchester and chair of the board of Jisc, the United Kingdom’s information technology service for higher and further education ( 

Before joining Salford in 2009, Martin was Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cape Town (from 2002-2008) and the inaugural Dean of Higher Education Development at UCT (from 1999-2002). He is Emeritus Professor and Life Fellow at the University of Cape Town, a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa, a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society for Arts.