Towards a Deeper Understanding of the Symbolism of Social Media


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date22 Aug 2018


With the widespread use of social media (e.g., microblogs, instant messaging) for multiple tasks (e.g., socialization, news subscription, finance, online shopping), the design of the technology becomes more complex and advanced. The confluence of technological features and widely- used contexts may result in social media conveying different “meanings” to users, which I investigate in terms of the symbolism of social media in this thesis. Prior research suggests that a thorough understanding of technology requires the consideration of both material and social entities. However, research on communication technologies largely takes either one stance or the other, and the integration of both is still rare. Following the sociomaterial perspective, this thesis, organized as two essays, seeks to discuss the subjective and abstract meaning symbolized by a social medium. In Essay 1, I present an exploratory case study and discuss how the symbolic meaning of WeChat in a business communication context differentiates from its meaning in a personal communication context. I also examine how the different symbolic meanings influence users’ responses towards disseminated messages on WeChat. In Essay 2, which is a follow-up to Essay 1, I develop a theoretical model that incorporates the technological features of a social medium and the strength of social ties users have on the medium as two facilitators of symbolic meaning. Both subjective and objective data collected from Weibo support the proposed model. Taken together, these two studies contribute to a richer understanding of the symbolism of social media, including how symbolic meaning is developed and how symbolic meanings impact on users’ different patterns.