Student Engagement

Social Media Literacy: The 5 Key Concepts

June 10, 2014 Updated May 30, 2014
Image credit: Thinkstock

Online digital technology has empowered users in ways that were unimaginable twenty years ago. Social media sites have given us the ability to reach a global audience, and have increased the average user's means to persuade and influence. We are no longer just consumers of media, but content creators and distributors, as well as editors, opinion makers, and journalists.

How does media literacy fit into this new media landscape? How do we ensure that we are not perpetuating harmful ideas and messages through our online social network? Perhaps with an increase in our power to influence and persuade should come the critical frameworks that we can apply to the media we create, and not just the media we consume. The situation is no longer us, the passive media consumers, versus them, the corporate and government media powers. When it comes to perpetuating harmful media messages, the enemy is often us.

So how can we create a media literacy framework that takes into account our power and participation in the media?

I thought it would be best to go back to the basics, and review the five concepts of media literacy. Although these were created in 1987 during a time when online participatory media didn't exist, I found that they are still useful for gaining a critical understanding of social media as well.

The Origin of the 5 Concepts

These key concepts came out of Canada, and were the results of years of discussion and debate among educators, media advocates and government agencies. The goal was to come up with a core framework to address issues such as commercialism, propaganda, censorship, media ownership and stereotyping in the media. These frameworks are still relevant today, and also can be applied to current hot-button issues such as online privacy and net neutrality. More importantly, we can apply these principles to our own self-created content, and not just to content created by the "powers that be." More than a framework, they also can serve as a guideline and reminder of the power we, in this new, more participatory media age, have at our fingertips.

Below are the five key concepts, with the wording slightly changed, as stated by the Ontario Ministry of Education in Canada. The quotes beneath the concepts are written by the folks at Center for Media Literacy and provide the clearest explanation of what these concepts mean and how they should be applied.

Key Concept #1: All Media Messages Are "Constructed"

"This is arguably the most important concept. The media do not simply reflect external reality. Rather, they present carefully crafted constructions that reflect many decisions and are the result of many determining factors. Media Literacy works towards deconstructing these constructions (i.e., to taking them apart to show how they are made)` --

When we use an online meme or post a selfie, we often are following unstated instructions for what these images should look like and say. From the very act of our not-so-natural smiles to how - especially in the case of female media images, we pose and display ourselves for the camera, we often are contributing to the perpetuation of media images that do not reflect our lives and true selves. When creating your own media, one should be aware of how imitation of popular or approved media images might come into play, and what influences outside of one's own life and values might be shaping how you create and share original content online.

Key Concept #2: Media Messages Shape Our Perceptions of Reality

"The media are responsible for the majority of the observations and experiences from which we build up our personal understandings of the world and how it works. Much of our view of reality is based on media messages that have been preconstructed and have attitudes, interpretations, and conclusions already built in. Thus the media, to a great extent, give us our sense of reality." --

How often do we take the opportunity to spread positive or lesser-known stories about our own realities that are not part of popular trends on twitter or from the writers at Comedy Central? How often do go beyond the headlines to find out new perspectives, share that research or share our own opinions? Which images, articles and videos do we choose to share with our friends and colleagues that are truly reflective our what constitutes our reality, and not merely echo the status quo and popular opinions?

Key Concept #3: Different Audience, Different Understanding of the Same Message

"If the media provides us with much of the material upon which we build our picture of reality, each of us finds or 'negotiates' meaning according to individual factors: personal needs and anxieties, the pleasures or troubles of the day, racial and sexual attitudes, family and cultural background, moral standpoint, and so forth." --

When we post content online, how aware are we of the diversity of our audience? Who might be un-intended audiences? How might this audience expand over time, to say, potential friends, colleagues, employers or significant others? We all know the stories of young people or unaware adults posting content online that gets them in trouble with future college admissions officers, employers or the law.

We forget that the online content can easily travel beyond our intended audiences, even if we believe they are one-on-one, private communications. We also might forget that what is funny or mundane to some might be inflammatory to others. We should not shy away from posting content that might be divisive or controversial, but we should take the time to consider the possible interpretations and consequences that lie beyond our intentions and assumptions about our audience.

Key Concept #4: Media Messages Have Commercial Implications

"Media literacy aims to encourage awareness of how the media are influenced by commercial considerations, and how they impinge on content, technique, and distribution. Most media production is a business, and so must make a profit. Questions of ownership and control are central: a relatively small number of individuals control what we watch, read and hear in the media." --

Unfortunately, this has changed little since 1987. Indeed, media ownership has become more consolidated. While the number of people who control what we see in the media has expanded to those in our social networks, much the news we hear about the world is controlled by a handful of media companies. We might then share this information online, and serve as distributors of false or misleading information.

Much of the content we create is posted and distributed financially free of charge, but there is price we pay for use of these "free" services. All of content we post online is used to build a profile of us as potential customers. Much of what we share and post about those within our social network might be implicating friends and community in this commercial construct, usually without their consent. The commercial backbone of online media should factor into what we choose to share about our community and ourselves.

Also, media ownership has again come into the fore with the ongoing threat to net neutrality. If certain companies can determine what sites get faster service or seen at all based on their ability to pay large fees, much of what we share might be censored or limited based on whether it meets the criteria of our Internet service provider. Media ownership determines not only the media we can or cannot view, but also what the ordinary user can share and say online and to whom we can say it.

Key Concept #5: Media Messages Embed Points of View

"All media products are advertising in some sense proclaiming values and ways of life. The mainstream media convey, explicitly or implicitly, ideological messages about such issues as the nature of the good life and the virtue of consumerism, the role of women, the acceptance of authority, and unquestioning patriotism." --

When we post vacation photos instead of images from our less ordinary routines of life, how are we constructing a message about what is good and valuable in the world, and what are the unstated messages are we constructing about wealth and the opportunity that are for some and not for others? How are we using the media to "edit out" what is undesirable about our world and our lives, and feature only what is most photogenic or appeals to the lowest common denominator? How often do we go against the popular opinion of those we think of as our audience, even when we hold contrary opinions?

While the media landscape has radically changed, the criteria for evaluating content has not. The lens of criticality that holds media creators and distributers responsible should be applied to everyone and every institution, no matter how large or how small.

Please share your thoughts and ideas on this post in the comments section below.

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