How Do You Define "Social Media?"

by Tom Webster on Sep 15, 2010

Social MediaJason Keath asked an intriguing question a few days ago on the Social Fresh Facebook page: “If you were allowed to go back in time and rename “social media” — What would you call it?”

While there were a lot of great suggestions, let me humbly submit that you can’t name social media unless you can define social media. As a researcher, I confront this sort of issue all the time. You might see this as a trivial issue, but if you were to ask nine other people what their definitions of social media were, I bet no two would be the same – and at least three would be off-the-charts different from the rest.

Defining the Behavior

When I work with clients to field research studies on social media topics, I try to focus their inquiry on exactly what behaviors we are trying to isolate. Do you say “social media” when what you really want to know is “Facebook/Twitter User?” “Blogger?” The more precisely you can focus the question, the better answers you will get. Still, we are all interested in just how big social media really is, and pretty much every week we are treated to some new statistic on the matter. Often, where these stats and figures vary is dependent upon precisely this issue – how social media was defined.

Social Media Defined

Here’s my .02. While this is not necessarily what I would do on any given piece of client research, if I were to conduct my own survey, I would have this reasonably strict definition of social media: media that is co-created between an instigator/initiator and their audience. This means that I don’t define YouTube videos as social media. You might. I define the comments on a YouTube video page as social media, however, because there is co-creation occurring in that space. Embed that YouTube video on a static HTML page, and you strip it of the co-creation element – it just becomes a TV show. It’s a pretty simple test, in that regard.

I feel the same about blogs. A blog post, by itself, is not social media by my strict definition. If that blog post accepts comments, then those comments are social media. But again, using my handy test above, put that blog post on a static HTML page (like, say, Seth Godin’s blog), and you’ll see that the post itself isn’t social media. It isn’t functionally different from an online newspaper.

By the way, a term I don’t really care for that you might use to describe podcasts, blog posts and Internet video is “New Media.” Too imprecise for my taste, and those boundaries blur all the time. I don’t know that I’ve settled on a better term here (Multicast vs. Broadcast was my first instinct) but I know I don’t like “New.”

So, Facebook walls, Twitter chats, Disqus threads and yes, page upon page of trollworthy YouTube comments all meet my definition of social media. The posts, videos, podcasts or other “broadcast” media that prompted those comments seem to me to be something else. There’s nothing inherently “social” about video. If you are going to say that a “crowdsourced” video is social, then I would point out the amount of crowdsourcing (i.e., research) that goes into any Hollywood movie or Cable TV series. Are those social media?

This post, in fact, is not social media, but I bet there are lots of you who disagree with me on that score – so why not do a little co-creating in the comments? :)

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