I hope you aren’t reading this because you are looking for a quick and concise answer. All I have is the question: “What is social media?” After years of working with social media and considering the fact that I am sitting on a quasi-academic social media panel tomorrow, I ought to know, right? But I am convinced that none of us, at least none of us that I have met, truly know what social media is.
Let’s give examples of the most popular social media outlets today. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, MySpace. That’s the typical response, right? They are outlets of social media, but they are not distinctly social media in their own right. No, they are streams of ad-based revenue. They host something we call social media in return for our valuable clicks (somebody gets paid when you click an ad). The social media, supposedly, is the video or other content you upload or post and to which others respond. Social interaction through multimedia.
I was listening to Shane Hipps speak on Vimeo about the old adage, “the medium is the message.” When he described essentially everything we use to extend some function of the human body as a medium, I wondered yet again why we refer to a very precise set of technologies as social media. If your tie is a medium and someone comments on it, is that not social media? What we might otherwise call a conversation? While listening to Shane speak about presence, I had this creepy feeling of, “I’m not watching or hearing Shane. I am listening to sound waves generated by a series of electronic circuits.” I did not hear Shane at all, but I heard something that sounded like him. Looked like him.
So, as I mentioned, I am sitting on this social media panel tomorrow. I believe I have a pretty good idea of what most people in the room and on the panel will consider social media. Heck, we have social media scientists now, don’t we? I really don’t know what I will be able to contribute. It would be a bit like discovering an organic fossil on the moon and then holding a press conference the next day to explain exactly what this meant, how it got there, and how we should live as a result. Remember, I am still trying to find out if/how it can be redeemed. A bit premature, I think. How many of us trying to analyze “social media” today will look like fools tomorrow?
Unfortunately, most of the “hard” data I see relating to social media is about marketing. We all love to be sold something, right? We send a message to our friend on the other side of the world because we want to get suckered into ordering $50 worth of stuff we will never use. There is no greater feeling than knowing we are giving marketers all the data they will ever need to attract our business.
One thing I don’t quite know if I can say on the panel tomorrow is that the use of social media has a strong relation to autism. People with autism are learning to use technology to enhance their social interactions. People without autism are developing autism. I once gave the illustration to a friend of a group of students walking across a campus, all talking to one another. Except for one. This student is present, but not interacting with the social group. Instead, they are on a phone with someone out of sight. That is social avoidance, a sign of autism. The student is standing amongst living, breathing people and chooses to disconnect.
But what about the good?
I have said many times “War is never good, but good things can come from war.” Perhaps I will now say, “Social media can be very bad, but good things can come from social media.” There are too many good things coming as a result of social media–at least in my mind–to say it is categorically bad or immoral. Besides, immoral is not a popular word these days. But, I think a deeper question, beyond “What is social media?” is “What are we missing in our face-to-face relationships that push us toward social media?” Loneliness? Validation? Fun? A unique experience? Attention? You tell me. When social media acts as a replacement for something real and physical or seeks only an ego boost, it is wrong.
So, here is one of my many attempts at a definition of social media. Please let it serve more as a warning than a working definition…
Social media: A replacement for conversation.