What is "social media?"

I frequently conduct workshops for organizations interested in understanding social media, how it will affect them and how they can embrace it.

One of the first questions people ask is, “What is social media?”

I used to refer to the social media article in Wikipedia. However, over time, this section has had a tortured history of revisions and struggles over its content. As I write this, the Wikipedia article on social media opens: “Social media is an umbrella term that defines the various activities that integrate technology, social interaction, and the construction of words and pictures. This interaction, and the manner in which information is presented, depends on the varied perspectives and “building” of shared meaning, as people share their stories, and understandings.” Let me read that again: …”technology, social interaction, and the construction of words and pictures.” Huh?

I can’t use the Wikipedia definition and expect people to be any clearer on what social media is. So, I’ve developed my own plain language definition of social media:

Social media are online communications in which individuals shift fluidly and flexibly between the role of audience and author. To do this, they use social software that enables anyone without knowledge of coding, to post, comment on, share or mash up content and to form communities around shared interests.

What do you think of this definition? Is it clear? Can it be improved upon?

Further reading:

Brian Solis, What’s Wrong with Social Media

Robert Scoble, What is Social Media?

David Meerman Scott, What the heck is Web 2.0 / social media/ social networking and how do these concepts relate to the new rules of marketing & pr?

  • I think the point about authors and audiences being fluid roles is exactly right for social media. What drives the ‘conversation’ is everyone’s ability to change out of the role of passive listener to active contributor.

    As has been mentioned many time, you can no longer control your message. Once you post an idea, anyone else can take it and add, subtract, or re-shape the concept. It distributes the power to decide what to think about.

  • Ike

    I defined it this way:

    “Social Media is a strange brew of Technology + People + Organization + Freedom. Miss an ingredient, and you’re cooking something different.”

  • Communities – Content – Communication – Individual = Definitely better key terms than wikipedia.

    May be you should replace communications by communities of interest in the first sentence because, I think, it’s the core of it. After ‘of coding’ you could replace with ‘to communicate, share, re-purpose content’.

    Not that easy anyway 😉

  • I think that’s quite a good definition, Joe. Let me pose some questions, though, for the sake of discussion:

    Are social media truly limited to the online realm? And if we’re shooting for the clearest possible wording, what does “mash up” mean?

    More significantly, I think it’s less an issue of shifting between roles of author and audience and more about the flattening of the hierarchy that elevates author above audience. Just a thought. Might not be accurate.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Great definition Joe.

    I’d even go as far as saying that social media has always been around, it’s just that the ridiculously easy forming of groups that online software enables has flipped “word-of-mouth” from being a side-effect of media to being one of it’s main channels.

    If it’s important enough, the news will find me. 🙂

  • Great definition! I’m going to direct folks to this from now on when they ask me what it means.

  • Hi Joe, trying to define social media has been a labor of love for me. I have wrestled for two years to get social media defined easily for the rest of the world to “get it.” I’ve tried to organize a collective for input before submitting to wikipedia officially and then wikipedia itself became a mess of people trying to throw their 2-cents into it. I gave up for the time being. I’m actually now trying to work with wikipedia directly to get that awful and incorrect definition replaced.

    Here’s where we were able to get collective support and the following definitions have been embraced by many organizations, groups, and projects dedicated to Social Media:

    Short Version
    Any tool or service that uses the internet to facilitate conversations

    Longer Version
    Social Media is the democratization of information, transforming people from content readers into publishers. It is the shift from a broadcast mechanism to a many-to-many model, rooted in conversations between authors, people, and peers.

  • Sounds like blogging and items like twitter to me… So is social media really an out of date term? When we should just refer to it as media.

  • I like your definition Joe. Without trying to edit by committee, it strikes me that “conversations” should slip in there somewhere. I love the “audience and author” line. Very clean and clear…

  • Susan

    Finally, an explanation I can pass along! However, I am seconding Mike Keliher, in requesting either a better definition of mash-up or replacing it…definitions that require defining.

  • Wow. Thanks for the great comments everyone.

    I get that “mash up” isn’t understood by everyone. I’ve failed my own plain language test. So, I’ll jettison the term in future.

    Grant, I think that social media is a very useful concept. It’s definitely not out of date. To me the essential elements are the ability to shift between audience and author without the need to code. Previously, many people could take full advantage of the Read/Write Web, but to do so they needed to code. And that excluded most people. So, social media is describing a totally new state of affairs on the Web.

    Mike, You’re right about the flattening of hierarchy. That’s definitely an effect that needs to be captured.

    Terry, You’re right too. I need to get “conversation” in there.

    Brian, I understand your definition. But I preferred to put the focus not on the services and tools, but on what people can do with them.

    Thanks again everyone for reading and commenting.

  • Ian Ketcheson

    I agree with you, Joe. I disagree with most, if not all, of the over-complicated comments that followed. Actually, the more I read the comments, the more I think they are all wrong, except maybe Terry.

    He has a point that the fluidity btw audience and author has to take into account the key fact that the audience now talks amongst themselves. (i.e. conversation)

    As you drill down, the loss of publisher’s and editors’ privilege comes into it, but those are the advanced concepts that flow out of a nice, tight definition.

    Simple = good.

    Social media could also be framed as post-mass media.

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  • I agree with Ian’s comment.

    Social media for me = the reason people used the Web in the first place.

    Whether it was to exchange physics papers, participate in discussion forums or use online dating services, the Web is fundamentally a social gathering place. I know that for a while, access to the tools to publish/communicate were restrictive but they’re not anymore. As they become easier to use, social media moves away from being a concept to a way of life.

    Ultimately, for me, the Web = social media.

  • This is a great thread, and a useful discussion to be having.

    You’re absolutely right to criticise the Wikipedia entry – it’s a mess. I think it suffers from the fact that Social Media has become one of the most over-defined concepts since “knowledge management”. The simple and evident advantages have been rendered nebulous and impenetrable by the well-meaning dilution of “NPOV”.

    This is problematic because there are so many different facets one wants to try to cram into the One Right & True Definition – which is why your effort here to arrive at a simplified, plain language, generic definition is a valid and valuable exercise. Not everyone will agree on whatever definition you offer – but at least you’ll have one that makes sense to the audiences you’re addressing – and that’s a good thing.

    Defining things from the perspective of one’s audience seems like a good place to start, in fact. For me, the way I define or talk about social media tends to shift dependant on the context of the conversation (pardon the pun).

    For example, I had lunch at the weekend with a guy who runs a very successful Toronto business that currently has next-to-no online presence. Talking to him about the nature and uses of social media was a very different experience from talking to my team mates around the Toronto office, or talking to an audience of Third Tuesday acolytes. The common ground of understanding just wasn’t there, so I found myself using a lot of analogies to traditional media approaches; talking about what’s changed.

    One of the concepts that seemed to resonate with this chap was an idea I’ve used in the past: that the Internet has democratized communications such that we’ve shifted from the old one-to-many form of communications (broadcast) to many-to-many (participatory) forms.

    That’s what we mean by the “social” part, I believe. The media – however you want to categorize them – all now have the potential to be social, literally “interactive”, and two-way. We read newspapers, we watch television, we listen to the radio – but these are all passive forms. OK, so maybe we write a letter to the editor once in a while, or chuck a brick at the TV screen – but we’re not really participating. We’re being talked at and broadcast as opposed to engaging in.

    Social media is something we engage in rather than consume. Yes, we still read blogs, watch YouTube videos, listen to podcasts – but we can also create them ourselves, and respond to them directly with (the potential for) equal status and presence of voice as the original blog post or podcast.

    You’ve seen the slides I use quoting David Weinberger and highlighting the shift from a unidirectional, hierarchical communications flow to a world where “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy”, in David’s splendid phrase. I guess that’s a similar point to the one Mike Keliher makes, above. The Internet effect on the author-audience dynamic is precisely what McLuhan predicted: “the consumer becomes producer as the public become participant role player”.

    In old media, big mattered. You needed to be big to own the broadcast tower. There was a core of ownership in the hands of the few (the Hearsts, Ochs-Suzlbergers, Murdochs, Astors, et al). Now, big is increasingly irrelevant – as Engadget or The Huffington Post have ably demonstrated.

    When I talk about the democratization of media, this is precisely what I mean – the means of production are now no longer in the hands of the few. I particularly like the way you’ve expressed this in the first sentence of your definition – the “shifting between roles” thought works for me.

    One other point that needs to be made, I think, is that the shift has also been catalyzed by a fundamental change in attitude brought about by the Web – or, at least, enabled by the Web. Some of the key points of this attitude shift are worth noting as candidates for inclusion in your definition, IMHO. For example, I don’t think you can successfully define social media without at least some reference to the underlying values of authenticity, transparency, and openness. Precisely how you work those into the definition without it becoming too long, I don’t quite know at this stage – I admire the succinct elegance of a two-sentence definition, but think it may need a third line to address these attitude points.

    As an aside (and since I’ve already quoted McLuhan, I might as well go for pseud bingo): discussing all this makes me wonder whether there are grad students out there somewhere working on an update to Harold Innis’ notions of time-biased and space-biased media (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time-_and_space-bias). What would Innis have made of the social media world, I wonder?

  • Joe,

    I played around with my own version during the ferry ride back to Victoria. First, here are some ideas on why I changed it around:

    -I changed “online” to “digital.” SMS can be a social medium, but is it considered ‘online’?
    -I emphasize communities more; social media without communities seems less social and powerful. Also, some of these communities pre-date social media.
    -The word “re-mix” is older and possibly better understood than “mash up.”
    -My definition blurs the line between being audience and author. Can the roles can be simultaneous?
    -I replaced the word “post” with “create.” Content can be created and shared, but not necessarily posted publicly.
    -“…both online and off.” For example: live-Rick Rolling, physically tagging each other at social media breakfasts, attending (remotely or physically) Podcamps and tweet-ups etc.

    “Social media are digital communications amongst and between shared-interest communities in which individuals participate as both audience and author. Members are enabled through user-friendly social software to create, comment on, share or re-mix content within and across a variety of venues both online and off.”

    Michael OCC: I think definitions are complex things. As you and Brian say, social media are democratizing — and the ability for everyone to help define it appears democratic in itself.

    To play the contrarian for a bit: with everything so “democratic” (if you agree it is) how can things like definitions and standards be created if no one agrees but everyone believes they have the right to provide input?

  • Andrea

    I think this is a pretty darn good definition. I am currently reading Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff’s book “Groundswell,” and they define the groundswell (their coined term for Web 2.0) as “A social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations.” They say it’s the coming together of people, technology and economics. No matter how you define it, in all the above definitions one thing is key – people have the power.

    Looking forward to hearing more of your insights!

  • Joe,
    I wish I had come across this conversation earlier. I taught a class at UQAM in Montreal and I submitted to my students my own definition of social media (which, by the way, looks like yours). I like very much the idea where individuals shift between the role of author and audience. I will add this to my definition. I also like Michael Allison’s definition, especially the concept of remixing content. Great conversation. We could have suh a conversation during Third Tuesday in Montreal.

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  • Thanks for this definition. These guys cited your definition, but expanded upon yours, nice makes it very clear, check it out.


  • After I have read all the comments and the wiki explanation, including your version of what social media is, I realised that it’s much simpler than try to sound intelligent. If we look at the two words “Social” and “Media” it actually becomes real simple. “Social” is the interaction between individuals or groups on a friendship basis. And “media” describes the application used to deliver the desired out come. I will define Social media as:

    “Any online application or a combination of applications, whereby individuals or groups can interact, for social reasons.”

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  • I personally find the name ‘social media’ misleading.
    ‘Social media’ carries the connotation that it may, it may
    be pro-social justice but in fact, it widens the digital divide
    — this is what’s misleading abt the term.

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  • I am giving a presentation on Social Media at our national meeting in San Francisco in the beginning of August. Your post has eased some of the stress of figuring out how to explain what I do to a non-technical audience. THANK YOU!!

  • Karen J

    This is a very good definition! It is a simple, clear breaks down of the application vs. technology. It helped me better frame these impacts and applications as I try to write my company’s Social Media / Social Networking policy. Thank you.

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  • It is a clear definition than Wiki thats for sure


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