Defining social media

What is social media? I hear this question from executives and conference attendees alike. And the question was asked again this week on For Immediate Release, the excellent podcast by Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson.

Defining Social Media

Social media has evolved rapidly. So, I thought it would be time to update the definition I published in 2008. Here’s the definition I offer today:

Social media are online communications in which we shift instantly and easily between the role of audience and creator – without needing to know how to code. We do this by using social software that incorporates functions like publishing, sharing, friending, commenting, linking and tagging.

Essentials of Social Media

Invariably, when I present this definition, I see people’s heads nodding. Why? Because it presents the definition of social media from the perspective of the user, not the technologist. It also hits on the essentials of social media:

  • Online: We’ve always been social beings. But social media allows us to express ourselves and connect with others who share our interests regardless of where they are. Being online extends our reach to anyone who has an Internet connection.
  • Audience and creator: We have a voice, and given that voice, we’ll use it.
  • No need to know how to code: This is the big difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. It’s the factor that opened social media to all of us. In Web 1.0, publishing was restricted to those who had coding skills or those who could afford to hire them. Today, we all are publishers.
  • Social functions: This is what it comes down to. The reason we participate. What can we do with the software? Express ourselves, find others, share, form community.

Take it. Use it.

That’s how I define social media. If it makes sense to you, feel free to use it. And if you think I’ve missed something, please leave a comment below. I’m always keen to improve it.

  • My definition is similar but I add a notion that social media also contributes to offline interaction.

    • Good point Marc. Relationships I’ve developed on social media have only fed my desire to meet people in real life. Having said this, I consider this one of the benefits of social media, but not an essential element in its definition. Online relationships can and do exist on their own, independent of whether we actually ever meet in the real world. And here, of course, I’m thinking of communities of interest, not the other kind of relationships. 😉

  • I support your definition and agree with Marc too…but how do we capture/engage the rest of the world who are not into the on-line experience ….of expressing ourselves, finding others, sharing, forming community?

    • How do we engage with the rest of the world that is not online or part of social media? A great question. And the answer is … this is why we should not fall prey to the notion that traditional or legacy media are dead. They aren’t. Social media and traditional media must be integrated in any program that hopes to reach most people.

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  • The simplest definition I’ve used in the past is that it’s online programs that enable people to share things. The consequences from that are… well, that’s the next dozen or so slides!

    • Brendan, your definition really cuts to the heart of the matter. It puts the focus on the social software that enables the interactions. I’ve found when I talk to groups, I get a totally different reaction when I focus the definition on us – how we are able to do the things we want to do without needing to know how to code. I really see the light go on in people’s eyes when I approach it this way.

      I do like the economy of your approach. I’m presenting to a group on Monday and I think I’ll use both definitions to gauge how people react to each. Thank you for the comment. It’s much appreciated.