Is Social Media Really Social?

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It’s a simple question, what makes something “social”?  We group a lot of things into the social bucket these days. Yelp, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, FourSquare, you name it. Yet the only thing these services truly have in common is the act of sharing.  Sharing of status, sharing of content, sharing of location, sharing of opinion, etc.  which begs the question “is sharing the same thing as being social”? If I am walking past a homeless person and I share some of my lunch with them, am I being social? Altruistic certainly, unselfish definitely, but social?  Does there not have to be socialization to be social?  Does socialization not require interaction or dialog amongst participants in the shared experience?

Is Sharing Information Social?

If I walk to the nearest telephone pole and put up a flyer about a favorite band that will be coming to town am I being social?  If I create a video about how much I love that band and have it play on the local cable station was I being social?  I’m certainly sharing information and opinions but doubtful anyone would define those activities as “social”.

Are Comments Social?

Blogging (the act of content creation and publishing) is a broadcast of information, it is not a dialog.  So is the fact that you allow comments on a blog what makes it social? While perhaps not exactly a dialog it is at least the ‘opportunity’ for asynchronous discussion.  Does that also then mean that anything that allows comments/ratings is then social?  Newspaper websites, Amazon, etc.

Is Community Social?

How about “community” then?  It seems to me this is a much better word than social for the majority of the things we lump under the social media umbrella.  Is it not the act of producing *something* which then contributes to the creation and growth of a persistent community of people?  Twitter on the other hand certainly facilitates synchronous dialogs and interaction in a public forum, to a lesser degree Facebook does as well (Facebook is a closed forum for the most part).

Semantics?

You might ask, why bother trying to define it at all, or worry about whether something ‘technically’ meets the criteria of social?  Great question.  The truth is I could care less what we call it, or whether it meets some strict definition.  What I *do* care about however, is ensuring that there is clarity when it comes to businesses trying to engage with what we are calling “social media”.  We make these blanket statements and blanket articles about “social media”. We write columns and give speeches on what it all means, how it works, how to do it, etc.  Yet we are continuing to expand the size of the umbrella to include more and more companies, and many of the things we are adding now don’t actually fit what was written in those articles originally.  Do you really think that following any of those articles would provide you the best practices for dealing with YouTube?  How about Yelp?  Foursquare? In other words, my fear is that we are generalizing items into groups that should remain specific entities.  In our attempt to make something be a part of the “hot” trend right now we are blurring the landscape to the point in which it is unrecognizable.  It makes it difficult to explain, it makes it difficult to comprehend, and in turn makes it less likely for a company to engage. Think of it this way, your dad just asked you to explain “social media” to him…does your explanation actually fit what these other companies do or are we trying to fit square pegs into round holes? Don’t worry, it’s not your fault, this has been going on since the first attempts to define social media.  Even the Wikipedia entry is completely schizophrenic on the topic.  In one sentence it’s about user generated content, in another it’s about media to facilitate social interaction.  Unfortunately one does not require the other so the definition does us no good. Do I think we’ll all change our terminology? No. What I do hope however is that we will all start referring to the specific mediums we are addressing vs. the generic moniker of “social media” unless our intention is to confuse others rather than provide clarity.]]>

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