How Do You Define "Social Media?"

by Tom Webster on Sep 15, 2010
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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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  • Anonymous

    It’s very enlightening. It makes it all clear. However, if a particular item, like a video or blog post, although they’re posted in a static HTML page is shared through a social network or micro blog, will the act of sharing the content qualify as a form of social media?

  • Anonymous

    It’s very enlightening. It makes it all clear. However, if a particular item, like a video or blog post, although they’re posted in a static HTML page is shared through a social network or micro blog, will the act of sharing the content qualify as a form of social media?

  • I think the sharing mechanism probably does, but again – the content being shared is broadcast content. That’s my take, anyway, but I like semantics :)

  • Why lurk when the joys of conversation are mutually rewarding? You say this post above is not social but the bits below are, like this? It´s a chicken and egg situation, no ? – without great comment there´s no igniting a conversation?

    Great thoughts however often go uncommented at the point they were created, eg in blog comments – as the audience talk about it elsewhere. The conversations about your thoughts can be disparate online. You may have made an impact, but were unable to determine it no matter how sophisticated you attempt to measure it was.

  • I’ve never been a fan of “social media” as a descriptor either. (But, as usual, you did a much better job than I can of putting why I don’t in to words.)

    In the most un-sexy terms possible, I think what most people like to lump in to social media (as a genre) is really digital media. And digital media can be sorted into two true categories: original content and commentary. In your example, the YouTube video is content, the comments below are commentary. If the author of the original content — or even if those who comment — start “talking” to each other, it can become a conversation. But even once it’s a conversation, is it ever truly social? (Going further, Seth creates tons of content… Seth starts and is involved in nearly zero online conversation.)

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.


  • Isn’t that all true of a TV show, though? Or a good book?

  • Kyraocity

    I really love the distinctions you are making Jake. They are practical, insightful and I think I’ll use them to bring these very issues up in my social style of teaching in this new semester. My class of 60 or more (this semester I have 98 in one) are highly social experiences that have made me always reflect on my Twitter experiences. Getting more than the same 4 “top” or “outspoken” students to speak is not all that interesting or social to me. Why meet in a classroom at all to listen like we are watching TV? That’s like the boob tube coming to you live. Why?? Stop it!! I am out to teach others who to incorporate a more socially interactive experience into teaching but academia resists 2.0 everything it seems. How ironic.

    Here’s a quote that fits your definition of social media: “I know what I have given you. I do not know what you have received” Antonio Porchia (Italian Poet 1886-1968)

  • Thanks! Love the quote, by the way, but I have an embarrassing poetry background.

    And only my mother calls me Jake.


  • Social media are the content and connection that join people online and offline. SM Marketing is the activation of this dynamic to drive a business objective.