Detroit News photo illustration)
Social media wasn't a part of day-to-day life a decade ago.
People communicated through phone calls and letters sent via postal service. Photos were put into albums for later viewing and frames so they could be displayed. Classmates had to attend reunions to catch up on what everyone was doing.
Today, you can look up almost anyone on Facebook with just a few clicks. For many people, logging onto Twitter or posting a photo to Instagram is as common an activity as making a phone call or watching television. The number of social media outlets is growing exponentially as more people delve into social networking.
The key to not being overwhelmed by it all is finding the website or application that best suits your needs. Photography buffs may stick to Flickr and shy away from Twitter. A parent may only want to join a social networking site to keep an eye on the kids. These days, even Grandma is on Facebook, which makes sense because it's the most popular social media site with more than 1 billion users.
"Facebook is still king," says Scott Monty, global head of social media for Ford Motor Co.
"It's clearly the mainstream of social networking," he says. "Facebook has made it easy for us to share the things that matter to us and to connect with people around us. The reason grandmothers are on there largely stemmed from wanting to be part of their grandkids' lives because that's where they were."
While Facebook has a broad appeal, other social media sites cater to different personalities. Pinterest is for artistic and creative types who prefer images over text, while Twitter may attract folks who want to be the first to hear the latest news about celebrities, politics, sports, etc.
Karen McDevitt, new media instructor at Wayne State University's Department of Communications, says people flock to sites like these because they're easy to use.
"It doesn't take much effort," she says. "It lends itself to quick quips without much hassle."
Of Facebook, McDevitt adds it has "become a visual representation of our identity. It's who we are and how we see each other."
Nikki Little is a social media manager and new mom to twin boys. She says she used several social media outlets to chronicle her pregnancy and keep family and friends updated.
"I shared photos through my five-and-a-half-week hospital stay, and these past two weeks post delivery on Instagram, then had those shared directly to my Facebook and Twitter pages," says Little, who works for Identity PR in Bingham Farms.
She adds that she was "careful not to over share, but the response from people — from close friends to people I hadn't seen or talked to since high school — has been astounding. It was humbling and really helped me … when I was trying hard to stay positive and do whatever I needed to do to ensure my twin boys were born healthy."
Here's an overview of the most popular social media outlets, and some that are just starting to gain steam:
Breaking down social media Facebook
Here's where you connect with the world via a network of profile pages called "timelines." Add friends and interact by commenting or "liking" a post, business and famous people, or by sharing it on your page or another page. Their messages, photos and other activity show up in your news feed.
Users: More than 1 billion
Launched: February 2004
Uses: Share photos and information with family and friends. Keep up with your favorite restaurants, celebrities and products. Promote an event, or find out where your friends are or will be.
Privacy: Facebook has complex privacy settings. You can make photos and personal details invisible to anyone outside of your friends list.
Fun fact: After the United States, the countries with the most Facebook users are Brazil and India.
Broadcast your thoughts to your followers in 140 characters or less. A 2009 study by Pear Analytics found that around 40 percent of tweets were "pointless babble," while less than 4 percent were about mainstream news items. Users employ a hashtag (#) in front of a word, making that word link to every other use of that hashtagged word on Twitter.
Users: 500 million
Launched: July 2006
Uses: Alert your followers to what you think about the latest "Walking Dead" episode. Observe what Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga or Katy Perry are doing (they are the three most popular Twitter users).
Privacy: You can opt to post "protected tweets," those only visible to your approved followers, as opposed to "public tweets."
Fun fact: More than 24 million tweets were sent on Superbowl Sunday.
It's hard not to compare Google+ (pronounced "Google plus") to Facebook. In fact, the first suggestion that comes up in a Google search for "Google+" is "Google+ vs. Facebook." The sites are similar, but Google+ is the crux of Google itself. Features include messaging, "circles" to organize friends, events and games. Like Twitter, Google+ uses hashtags and shows which phrases are trending.
Users: 500 million
Launched: June 2011
Uses: Video chat with a group of friends, discuss specific topics with Google+ Communities or post links to share with friends.
Privacy: Users can pick and choose which circle of friends can see each post and make some posts "unshareable" so friends can't copy the content to their pages.
Fun fact: Early adopters of Google+ were 71 percent male.
A photo-sharing social network where users typically capture images from a mobile device.
Users: 100 million
Launched: Oct. 2010; purchased by Facebook in April 2012
Uses: Most people use it for sharing photos of their lunch, pets, new outfit or entertainment events. Images can be spruced up with one of many filters that make them look brighter, darker or more retro. They also can be cross-posted to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Foursquare and Tumblr. Instagram also employs the use of hashtags.
Privacy: An option exists to make your posted photos visible only to users who you allow to follow you.
Fun fact: Apple named Instagram "app of the year" in 2011.
Users pin photos to boards organized by category (humor, food, photography, etc.). Each pin is a photo that links to the originating website, and must have some sort of caption and category. Pins are shared with followers. Comments, likes and re-pins are allowed.
Users: Nearly 50 million
Launched: March 2010
Uses: Pinterest is useful for organizing ideas and bookmarking websites for later use. A bride-to-be may have a board for her dress ideas and another board about cakes or other wedding-related items. Users can share these boards with anyone, even those not signed up on Pinterest. Recipes, crafts ideas and beauty tips dominate Pinterest.
Privacy: Pinboards can be completely private or shareable to only users you choose. Users can also opt to have their profiles unsearchable by search engines.
Fun fact: Several sites like pinterestfail.com have popped up to expose that not everything posted on Pinterest is a fantastic idea or is as easy as it sounds.
New social networks
Vine: A mobile app for creating six-second video clips to post on Twitter. Vine debuted in early 2013.
Medium: Also from Twitter, this invite-only social network emphasizes quality posts, instead of an endless stream of cat videos.
Highlight: This app tells you where your friends or your crush is on a map so you can pretend to casually run into them.
Thumb: Named as "one of the 7 social networks to watch in 2013" by CNN, Thumb uses personal crowd sourcing. Aren't sure if that tie matches your shirt? Snap a photo, upload it to Thumb and let the world to decide for you.
Other popular platforms
Bebo: Similar to Facebook
Café Mom: Networking website for moms
Flickr: Photo sharing and management
Foursquare: Location-based application that uses check-ins
LinkedIn: Professional networking website often used for job searches
MySpace: Music-focused site
Meetup: Based on interest and physical location
Socialcam: Video application for sharing videos on social network sites
Tumblr: Microblogging platform