The Online Ecosystem: Balancing Social Media

Social media is no single idea, method or platform and consequently that makes it difficult to classify. After devising a series of sessions for students, designed to equip them with essential technical skills, I was unconvinced by the supplied billing: ‘Exploring the Online Landscape’. Social media doesn’t behave like a geological system, where the landscape is subject to continental-scale forces and millennia of weathering. It’s rapidly evolving and highly sensitive to change, so ‘online ecosystem’ is a clearer paradigm to adopt. The different social components are connected via:


  • the type of content they can communicate,

  • their complementary nature and how they interact with one another; and that

  • their removal can affect the balance of the whole system.


In less metaphorical and far less alliterative terms: Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Tumblr, WordPress, Blogger and others work best when they’re arranged in complementary groups around a task, not as individual and isolated ‘solutions’.

The social ecosystem: not all social media sites are created equal. Audience size and a focus on content creation, or content promotion, alters how they can then be used interdependently.

Like an ecosystem, the social components have internal controlling factors.  Which social media accounts do you include and why? How do you balance the included elements? In addition, there are external controlling factors: how your social ecosystem responds to changes in the wider world. Also in rarer, but highly desirable cases: whether your content affects this global external population in a significant way.

Balancing the internal system is about configuring social sites which work interdependently. In turn, made clearer by reducing the essence of what social media sites do, into a series of synopses.


  • Twitter. Short messaging bush telegraph, which points at other social sites. The social equivalent of front-page news.

  • Pinterest. Aspirational mood boards. You pin pictures of what you like, but significantly, each picture is a link to an article, photo, video or other piece of content. Links are a form of Web currency as they confer status, which directly influences traffic (PageRank is Google’s ‘authority’ metric).

  • Google+. ‘Communities’ are aesthetically pleasing streams containing items of interest, for commenting or sharing. ‘Hangouts’ are interactive broadcasts and ‘Drive’ is a collection of cloud collaboration office tools.

  • BloggerWordpressTumblr. Blogs: originally a solo online diary to post your thoughts. Now a professional publishing medium. Tumblr is ‘microblogging’, short for tumblelogs, and shares genealogy with Twitter.

  • YouTube. Make a video, upload it and share; but who actually sees the video? Two disciplines to consider: how do you ensure Internet users are aware of it? How do you then entice them to watch it?

  • Vines & Gifs. Mini video virals which require considerable lateral thought and imagination.

  • Feedly. A feed aggregator. Discover what people are likely to be interested in, by checking what’s currently most popular.


Ecosystems operate on an energy-flow model and to a greater extent online ecosystems operate on a communication-flow model. Passing content between geographical locations and audience strata. Altering the social media balance can profoundly affect how information is shared, acted upon and escalated.


The first step when deciding how to implement social media – to enhance and improve student engagement – is to understand that it’s not a single entity, but an ecosystem of linked components. In the next two posts, I’ll be considering how an ecosystem may be applied to a module and how the ecosystem might then be balanced, to address the needs of contrasting course requirements.



Next post: Using Social Media for Engagement, Part One: Planning.


3 thoughts on “The Online Ecosystem: Balancing Social Media

  1. Thanks Patrick, I find the concept of an online ecosystem really helpful and it has already helped me to think through how to use social media to support students’ engagement with one of the University’s Grand Challenges.


  2. The ecosystem analogy is very interesting – and the growth/lifecycle of those components, as they develop and compete, may also invite comparisons.


  3. Thanks Kate, I’d be very interested to hear more about the Grand Challenges, sounds like an excellent opportunity to develop social media communication channels at Exeter.

    Thanks Simon, I agree, there is a tendency for particular platforms to dominate and the growth cycles vary wildly. I’ve found that Twitter can often act as the dominant communication site for components, as it relays information changes so quickly.


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