So what exactly does “social media” mean? Well, we could just call it “blogs and stuff”, and most people would know what we mean. But if you’re in the communications profession, you really need to dig a little deeper to understand what it’s all about.
In the practical sense, the debate on social media has pretty much resolved to a definition you’ll find on Wikipedia:
Social media describes the online tools and platforms that people use to share opinions, insights, experiences, and perspectives with each other. Social media can take many different forms, including text, images, audio, and video. Popular social mediums include blogs, message boards, podcasts, wikis, and vlogs.
That’s a straightforward definition. Where it gets sticky is when people start to debate what social media means in the broader sense—as in, what does it mean in relation to what we already know as “media”? Uh oh. Now we have to think about words that have always seemed self-evident. Media is newspapers. Television networks. Radio. Big news organizations like Fox and CNN. The Media are also people who publish and comment on information, most typically news. And “new” media is pretty much anything that happens over the Internet. What is the common denominator for these meanings, and how does “social media” alter our understanding of it?
I know no one does this anymore, but it’s interesting at this point to crack open a dictionary. It turns out that media, the plural of medium, means “that which lies between things”. It’s “a substance through which a force acts or an effect is transmitted”. When we talk about media communications, the substance is typically newspapers, television, magazines, radio, books and now of course the Internet. In business, media might also include brochures, direct mail, web sites, press releases, presentations and demos. The force or effect that is transmitted is information—information about people, events and ideas. But the kicker is that media lies between “things”, and transmits a force and effect. The “things” have traditionally been the public on one side, and the owners of media on the other. The force and effect transmitted is not just information, but the shaping of knowledge. And because traditional media—created with expensive and monolithic tools—is controlled by its owners, the shaping of knowledge by transmitting selected information has been very one-sided. And that’s where the full contextual meaning of “social media” starts drawing its significance.
“Social” has many definitions, but the most relevant meaning describes a group of interrelated and interdependent people. In the context of social media, it means that anyone and everyone can create, shape and transmit information. They can do this simply by virtue of new technologies that make it easy for even non-technical people to publish and distribute their ideas to an astonishingly broad audience. The implication is a dramatic rebalancing of the traditional power equation between media owners and the public. And this isn’t just some theoretical musing or utopian rallying cry—it’s a wave of reality washing over society from MySpace, FaceBook, Ebay, Yahoo!, YouTube, Google, Wikipedia and a vast sea of new media platforms and channels that keeps growing every moment.
This doesn’t mean that traditional media will just shrivel up and die—well, at least not right away, although the newspaper business is looking pretty grim. In fact, many social media sources are finding it useful to band together in networks and to generally pursue some of the same goals that traditional media sources have always chased—like a big audience. But fundamentally the game has changed in an earth shaking way, and many marketers and media mavens still don’t quite grasp what this means.
You can understand social media as blogs, and wikis, and forums, and any format that allows ordinary people to create and share ideas. But that’s only just the form of social media, and if your understanding of it stops there, your days as an effective marketer are numbered. As a marketer, you are not getting your company “in the game” just by putting up a blog or a wiki, or by assigning staff to hang around and comment on relevant forums, or by “repurposing” communications in shiny new Web2.0 wrapping. The change is far more fundamental, and requires you to entirely rethink the nature of your company’s relationship with the world around you. Really.
I’ll dig into more practical details of what has changed for marketers next time. For now, let’s just say that effective marketing is rapidly becoming less of a broadcast—where success is measure in single-digit percentages of response—and more of a conversation with the entire market. Have you already experienced this shift? I’d love to hear your stories about your company’s experiences with social media.