What is Social Media?

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.


9 thoughts on “What is Social Media?

  1. Daniel says:

    Your statements of “X is bad, but good things come from X” stops just short of saying that the ends justify the means. Perhaps “X is bad, but sometimes good things happen in spite of X, or after X” would be more appropriate.

    This thing we are doing? This is a conversation, but it is akin to other types of conversations in the past that took more time to complete: the editorial. There is an explosion of editorial content via social media. Like so many periodicals with a narrow and somewhat random distribution. People have been caught up in minutia for centuries, just the medium has changed.

    But it is the co-opting of the medium for gain that drives the creation of new mediums. We now have a proliferation of mediums, all clamoring for attention, demanding our involvement by exploiting our relationships with others.

  2. I agree with two paragraphs whole-heartedly. But, saying good happens in spite of X is not always completely true. War drives innovation. Now, maybe these innovations would have occurred anyway, but the fact is something occurred because of war. That is why I love NASA. It is the most peaceful way to innovate technology. Still, it was born from Nazi research.

    You may yet be able to convince me otherwise, but I think we have a slightly different perspective. However, I will agree that often times Y occurs in spite or after X.

    Thanks for the feedback.

  3. It is certainly a good warning if, indeed, social media is replacing conversation. It reminds me of how Shane described social media as similar to ice cream. If someone approached us and said that they are going to do some body-building and will eat only ice-cream in the process because ice-cream has protein, they would be well intentioned, truthful, and yet obviously negligent of the other ingredients of sugars and fats that would derail their initial goal. May we continue to enjoy ice-cream and social media alike, but not overlook the harmful effects it could carry with it if not seen for what it is.

    • robbie says:

      I recently listened to an NPR interview with the founder of twitter. He spoke of ice cream, too.

      “Stone, Williams and their third co-founder, Jack Dorsey, had all been pondering the idea of a simple service that allowed people to send status updates via their mobile devices. They spent a few weeks working on a prototype, and “at first, nobody liked it,” Stone recalls. “People for the first nine months or so thought it was not useful.” (Williams’ rebuttal to that criticism was, “Well, neither is ice cream. Should we ban ice cream and all joy?”)”

      • Given my love for ice cream, these are automatically the best two comments ever posted here.

        There is truth in both comments and they help to frame an appropriate perspective for social media.


  4. RR says:

    This reminds me of the debate back in the 90s between Richard Clark (USC) and Robert Kozma (UM) about whether the teaching and learning is the same regardless of what type of medium, including technology, was employed or whether the technological medium did influence the teaching and learning. As Solomon and Jack Esterline say, it all comes around over and over. 🙂

  5. Good connection @RR. There are similar debates today that also have reminded me of the infamous Clark/Kozma one such as the Nicholas Carr book “The Shallows” and the review of it recently by Jonah Lehrer found here: http://bit.ly/fcJvxk. The conversation that insued below the article between Carr and Lehrer was especially interesting. Wasn’t it the original Soloman himself who stated that there is nothing new under the sun? 🙂

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