Everyone talks about "social media," but very few people ever define what it is that they're talking about. This occurred to me the other day when working on a presentation I'm giving on social media. Sure, like the famous definition of pornography, we all seem to "know it when we see it," but I realized that if I don't want to confuse people at my talk we'll all need to be on the same page.
A search for a definition turned up a pretty good one at Wikipedia. But it seemed to be trying too hard.
The Duct Tape Marketing Blog defined it as "the use of technology combined with social interaction to create or co-create value," which I kind of liked, but I wasn't quite comfortable with the whole "value" thing. It seemed a little late '90s to me.
Bryan Eisenberg of FutureNow distilled the definition down to "platforms for interaction and networking," which seemed close, but not quite there. I found a few others; most of them made sense, but didn't quite hit the mark.
Defining Social, Defining Media
Let's look at each word individually. "Social" is really about the interaction of humans with other humans. Seems to make sense, right?
And media...well, that's a bit tougher, but one of the most cogent definitions I could find (again, back to good ol' Wikipedia) defines "media" (in the communications sense) as "technology used to store and deliver information or data." Makes sense to me.
Remixing those two definitions yielded a sentence that seemed to make a lot of sense: "Social media are technologies that facilitate interactions between humans using information or data." But that wasn't there yet. After thinking about it for a little while longer, it struck me the definition is a lot simpler than I originally thought: "Social media" are really just technologies that facilitate conversations.
Old Idea, New Form
"Social media" really isn't all that new. What's "new" are the forms it takes.
Look at this social media timeline. Using the definition, "technologies that facilitate conversations," it's pretty easy to see that these technologies have been with us for a long time. And yes, many of these (radio, e-mail, telephone, etc.) can be used for one-way communications (in the old-media broadcast sense).
Throughout much of human history, we've developed technologies that make it easier for us to communicate with each other. No doubt, there are differences between telephone party lines and Facebook -- the main one being the global reach of the Internet combined with the Web's multimedia capabilities.
The forms those technologies take, and the capabilities they provide, make them different -- there are big differences among Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. But they all boil down to channels that make it easier for us to talk to one another.
It's easy to get caught up in the hype of the Next Big Thing. Yesterday it was Facebook, Second Life, and Blogger. Today it's Twitter. Tomorrow it will be something else that ultimately really doesn't matter.
Getting into holy wars over which is better or more revolutionary is stupid. It's more important to look at what you can do with one technology that you couldn't do with the other technologies, who is using it, and how effectively it develops conversations with the people you're trying to reach.
Generally, new ideas survive, but not necessarily the particular platforms. Remember GeoCities? It's gone, but the idea behind it lives on. Remember Friendster? OK, it's still around, but it's not the center of attention anymore. Usenet morphed into Google Groups. And, blogs would exist without blogger.com. Social news would live on even if Digg went away. Ditto for just about every great new idea.
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.