Social media: singular or plural?

It’s hard to write at length about social media without pondering this question seriously. This post offers the most articulate answer to this question I’ve come across: use the plural when you’re talking about a collection of social media channels and their characteristics, use the singular when you’re talking about the cumulative effects of social media as a whole.


  1. Full disclosure: I’m a non-apologizing grammar pedant. It comes from my years of editing newspapers. Ever treating “data,” “media,” and “they” as singular nouns makes no sense to me.

    What are the unique “cumulative effects of social media as a whole”? I’m more distracted, or more connected, than ever? That’s an hypothesis, not a fact, so it must be tested using individual cases of users, platforms, and relationships. Each datum would tell its own story. (See what I did there?)

    Also, if that’s a justification for ever treating a plural word as a singular, it’s a slippery slope: when I’m discussing the cumulative effect of cats, should I then treat “cats” as a singular noun? “The cats is wreaking havoc on my allergies” could never be justified in the same manner, even if most people—other than caricatured hicks in bad television—began saying that.

    Language is social and changes over time; I get that. My problem isn’t the use of language; it’s the logic used to justify a position, particularly when offered by influencers ( I actually enjoy—probably too much—this debate, and I respect those who take a stand, attempting to balance technical with common usage; however, we should not twist the underpinning logic to match the vernacular (mis)usage.

    1. “What are the unique “cumulative effects of social media as a whole”? I’m more distracted, or more connected, than ever? That’s an hypothesis, not a fact, so it must be tested using individual cases of users, platforms, and relationships. Each datum would tell its own story. (See what I did there?)”

      Either I’ve misunderstood you or I’m sceptical that you actually believe this. Not even the most ardent positivist thinks it’s unwarranted to make claims in everyday language prior to ‘testing’.

      1. I don’t have a problem with the claim in isolation, but your argument uses it to the end of suggesting a policy shift. I think land development in Central Texas exacerbates flooding, but I’d need to empirically support that before I advocated reducing or halting new building permits.

        1. But I guess that’s secondary to your original point anyway, I just objected to it more than what you were otherwise saying… another way of justifying ‘social media is’: there’s a discourse about ‘social media’ which treats it as a cultural phenomenon, conflating many discrete platforms into one overarching thing, hence we could say it’s justified to talk about it in the sense of “‘social media’ is”?

        2. “[T]here’s a discourse about ‘social media’ which treats it as a cultural phenomenon.” That’s where we disagree. I could say the stray cat population in my hometown is an environmental phenomenon, but you wouldn’t want me saying “The cats is a problem.” Even when multiple units have a single, unitary effect, they remain individual units. Facebook has a different audience, platform, logic, and effect than does Twitter or Slack or YouTube, so I argue the emphasis should be greater, not weaker, on respecting them as individual units, not as a singular, undifferentiated mass.

        3. It had never occurred to me that disputes about language ultimately come down to disputes about ontology (though when I put it that way, I wonder why it never occurred to me)… if X has a single unitary effect, but it has made up of individual units, the effect is a consequence of those units and the relations between them, not simply an aggregate of individual effects. There’s a distinction between aggregate effects (individual units) and emergent effects (organised consequences of those units) which I think is hugely important.

        4. Right! Now we’re getting somewhere, and thank you for rephrasing it better than I. It’s similar to the “levels of analysis” debate in international relations, which comes down to unit versus system effects. I don’t think “social media,” as an aggregate, affects me because I don’t engage with many of them, while I certainly admit an effect of the individual ones with which I do engage.

        5. And do you not think effects exist unless they make themselves felt upon you qua individual, or other individuals?

        6. This sounds like the classic agent-structure debate. Two points: First, I think each network is itself a unique structure with its own population, rules, norms, etc. If I’m in Twitter, what happens in Tumblr doesn’t affect me.

          Second, I don’t deny the structure imposes constraints and opportunities, but we can’t deny agency as well. Twitter affects me as long as I stay logged in. There may be some latent effect from something I saw or heard while in Twitter, but that isn’t unique to Twitter but rather the product of all communication.

          In sum, no, I do not think “social media” as a singular entity has any effect because I do not think it exists as a singular entity (at least now until the rise of Gryzzl).

        7. But your argument is circular: it doesn’t exist because it doesn’t have an effect but it can’t have an effect because it doesn’t exist.

        8. No, I’m not saying it doesn’t exist *because* it doesn’t have an effect. I’m saying there is no singular “social media” because each network exists independently. If I’m in Twitter, I’m not in Snapchat. There may be overlap, but the population, rules, norms, etc. are different. Of course there may be some latent effects—take Instagram’s new Stories features, obviously a ripoff of Snapchat’s model—just as a new law passed in the Czech Republic doesn’t directly affect me as a US citizen, although it may generate some economic policy that affects the market for a widget produced in the US factory in which I work, so I may lose my job. That doesn’t mean I may lose my job because of “the economy.” Each government, each firm, each consumer retains his or her autonomy; the causality flows from individual to decision to effect.

          I’m a game theorist. The structure of the game incentivizes certain strategies—more of my colleagues use Twitter than Snapchat—but I retain my ability to choose which networks I join, how I behave within them, and whether I remain in them.

        9. “I’m saying there is no singular “social media” because each network exists independently.”

          Tautology, no? But anyway we risk going round and round because this disagreement tracks a whole host of related issues.

        10. I don’t see a tautology because I don’t agree with your prior assumption that “social media” as a singular entity exists. You conflate the ontological assumption with the empirical hypothesis. Even if I bought the assumption that “social media” as a singular entity exists, which I don’t, you haven’t shown that it has an independent effect.

          You made the original argument that there is an effect without offering evidence. When I called you out on that, in both ontological and empirical terms, you turned the burden of proof on me to show that “social media” as a singular entity has no effect, but I never bought your assumption that “social media” as a singular entity exists.

          I don’t buy your assumption, but even if I did, you haven’t supported your hypothesis.

        11. But it wouldn’t be an effect independent of a particular network, it would be an effect that is irreducible to the aggregate effects of each particular network. There’s a crucial difference: I’m advocating emergentism, not holism. I’m not saying that a collective has some mysterious existence that transcends its component parts, I’m saying that a collection of components can bring about collective effects that can’t be reduced to the aggregative contribution of each individual item?

        12. And my point about the risk we go round and round is that I don’t recognise that I’ve offered a hypothesis, in the sense in which you suggest, nor do I accept that standards you’re saying would validate it. There’s a fundamental disagreement here which transcends the incredibly specific sue that began the discussion!

        13. Also, it’s no less circular to argue that there is an effect, but—back to one of my earlier points—the burden is on demonstrating social media, as a singular entity, has an effect first, which I still don’t buy. You’re right: there is an ontological question, but we can set that aside, as many IR theorists do by assuming the international system does exist, and address the empirical question. I’m fine with that, but I haven’t seen any evidence that “social media” as a singular entity has an effect independent of the individual network.

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