David Breznau, a very smart marketer who authors the s.m.o.g. talk blog, left a comment on Friday’s post at Social Media Explorer that got me thinking. His thoughts, as I interpreted them, were that calling social media, “social media,” is, in itself a problem because all media is social but also includes commercial interests. If it is true, as I pointed out in the post, that what we call “social media” evolved because consumers ran away from other mediums due to the overabundance of marketing messages, then this “medium” is inherently different than others, perhaps so much so that “medium” isn’t an apt qualifier.

Defining Social MediaAdd to that a growing sense of tiredness of the term “social media” from some who practice it, not to mention Shannon Paul’s accurate insistence that having the term in one’s title is limiting, and we have to ask ourselves if “social media” is wearing out its welcome. At least as the term used to describe this new genre of communications.

Keep in mind my opinion here is at least someone biased by the fact that my consultancy, blog and primary selling point for my professional expertise is anchored in the term, “Social Media Explorer.” While social media is not all that I do, and Paul is right — it does put me in a bit of a box in some people’s minds — I’m not likely to argue to get rid of the term altogether.

However, let’s first look at a definition or two.

Wikipedia defines social media as:

… online content created by people using highly accessible and scalable publishing technologies. Social media is a shift in how people discover, read and share news, information and content; it’s a fusion of sociology and technology, transforming monologues (one to many) into dialogues (many to many) and is the democratization of information, transforming people from content readers into publishers. Social media has become extremely popular because it allows people to connect in the online world to form relationships for personal, political and business use. Businesses also refer to social media as user-generated content (UGC) or consumer-generated media (CGM).

First of all, I had to re-read that definition about six times to be sure I understood what it meant, proving that at least one social media tool and platform is, at a minimum, poorly written and edited. But when you dive into it, translate a few of the polysyllabic words and such, it makes sense.

I tried to find other definitions online, including an entire blog post attempting to define “social media” from Mashable, a blog that should know, but all I found was wordy nonsense and blather about revolutionizing communications and business.

The definition I’ve used in presentations for a while now is this:

Social Media can be best described as mediums, mostly on the Internet, that allow users to add or generate content to published works, creating conversations and sharing around the content and conversations.

In order to buy that definition, you have to be willing to accept a couple of things as true:

  • “Mediums” can be applied to platforms and tools like blogs or message boards instead of just “the Internet.” Otherwise, you’d call the arena “social technologies” which, I’d bet, most people don’t want to say or spell with any frequency.
  • A blog doesn’t qualify as social media unless the ability to comment is enabled. Without that, a blog is just one-way trumpet blasts you publish on your website (Clearing throat and mumbling, “Seth Godin!”)

The key element of any of these mediums (or tools, platforms or other descriptors to satisfy the OCD folks who would argue the semantics of the word “medium”) qualifying under the term in question is there must be a social element to them. You should be able to comment or share, adding to the content presented in said medium while also passing it along to others.

This definition can rule out the notion that all media is social because while you can comment on a television program, your comment can’t be consumed by other viewers of said program. It’s consumed by those in earshot when you said it. The technology (I quite like the term “social technologies”) enables what used to be personal comments and reactions to now be documented and intrinsically linked to the content in question. While this feature alone is almost “reaction documentation” rather than “social,” the fact that conversations between commentors can occur serves as the proof point. Add the ability to share (yes, electronically) and you have a medium that is, by definition, social. And other mediums don’t qualify as the same.

Keep in mind, however, that Breznau’s argument that all media is social isn’t necessarily wrong. In fact, by expanding your definition of social beyond the bounds of technology and the on-line space he’s absolutely right. We can talk to one another about anything we see, read, hear and otherwise consume. Yes, I’ve argued before that social media can happen without technology at all. But I would argue that my example (the feedback bulletin board in the hallway of my YMCA) does fit my definition of “social media” because the conversation trail is documented for all to see.

Yes, this is perhaps an argument of semantics. Sure, I can see why and how some people can grow weary of using the term at all. I even refer to social media as “internet marketing” or “online PR” to some people so I’m not forced into this definition discussion with someone who wouldn’t be able to grasp it. But I am confident and comfortable that this is what social media is.

Am I wrong? The comments are yours.

Image: Friend” by leocub on stock.xchng

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://buhlerworks.com/wordpress JEBworks

    It's that editor voice in me chiming in at times! Don't think that social media has worn out its welcome at all. The public at large probably doesn't even know or care that what they do online is described by those of us inside the industry as UGC or CGM or whatever the latest acronym we think up.

    Just having received my copy of the 10th Anniversary edition of The Cluetrain Manifesto, I can't help but coming back to basics. It's all about the conversation. Has always been, until we got side tracked for most of last century by the mass media that were anything but very social. Now we're getting our collective voices back and that changes a whole lot of things for people and as a result for business.

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  • Matt

    It's = “it is”
    Its = possessive

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks. Corrected.

  • http://lizcraigwriter.com/ Liz Craig

    I'm with you. I get tired of hearing “social media” talked about as if it's the Second Coming, or the one thing that's going to make a company successful. It can work to improve visibility, but after that, it's up the company to deliver amazing products and service. The term “social media” has an element of the mysterious about it, so people are awed or intimidated by people who claim to “know social media.” “Internet PR” seems like a better term. Good article.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks, so much, Liz. Appreciate the comment.

  • http://lizcraigwriter.com/ Liz Craig

    I'm with you. I get tired of hearing “social media” talked about as if it's the Second Coming, or the one thing that's going to make a company successful. It can work to improve visibility, but after that, it's up the company to deliver amazing products and service. The term “social media” has an element of the mysterious about it, so people are awed or intimidated by people who claim to “know social media.” “Internet PR” seems like a better term. Good article.

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    Thanks, so much, Liz. Appreciate the comment.

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