What is Social Media? Mid-2011 Insights

As more software companies, communications agencies and consultants (like me) are beginning to use the term “Social Business” to define the work they do and the value they deliver, I think it is important to take a look again at the definition of “Social Media”.

It has been 62 months (5+ years) since I registered SocialMediaClub.org. That was the day I decided that focusing on people and what many pioneers found to be a more ‘people-friendly’ term to describe what was happening. We felt it was more important to use approachable, simple terms than it was to continue to treat the new world like a software version release. Today, while Web 2.0 is still going strong, it would seem that our ‘bet’ on what the majority of people in the world would call this movement/era/interaction/trend/meme/whatever – was spot on. With Social Media referenced and used heavily in every news cycle, it’s clear that we foresaw a revolution in society that had legs – and more importantly – STILL has legs.

As with the original intention of emphasizing people over technology in our support of the growth of Social Media, many are taking a similar approach by shifting to talk of Social Business. They use this label/descriptor within the context of their profession as it is more friendly to the executives who control the budgets necessary to transition to a new normal as a result of “the big shift” we are experiencing. It is also more all encompassing then the use of Social Media alone, which has become more closely associated with marketing then internal collaboration. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post to explain these two terms and help establish a contextual lens for understanding the differences entitled “Social Media, Social Business: What’s the Difference”, which received some great feedback and support, as well as the expected backlash.

In short, what I believe is that Social Media has come to be more closely identified with the public spaces we inhabit online and how we interact with one another, while Social Business is looking at how companies interact with the public through Social Media, how they optimize the workforce and their partner ecosystem with Social Software and ultimately how they strategically approach all of it holistically. Unfortunately, we have also noticed that for most members of the public, Social Media has become synonymous with Twitter and Facebook whereas some view services like YouTube as entertainment and not thought of as Social Media as much. That is a topic we will save for another day.

But to only look at the past, the present and the future meaning of Social Media in such a light is to risk being overly myopic. As I wrote in my blog post on the revolution in Egypt, it wasn’t so much the tools that caused the revolution, but rather the changing view of the world and the shift in mindsets that they inspired – that the individual’s weren’t voiceless and powerless, but that they were a part of a connected society, and they had a voice that could be heard around the world. This change in mindset is what helped create the revolution within their society. It’s the same shift in mindset that is disrupting market’s and requiring companies to adapt to a new state of normal.

So what is Social Media? And why is it so important?

The current Wikipedia definition of Social Media is simplistic, but accurate:

Social Media are media for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable communication techniques. Social Media is the use of web-based and mobile technologies to turn communication into interactive dialogue.” (as of May 13, 2011)

Identifying the key characteristic is important, as is using examples and describing processes. There is nothing wrong with this approach and it is suitable within a variety of contexts to use this definition. Indeed, that is how we rallied support for calling this Social Media instead of New Media, that the characteristic of it being Social was so important and so valuable that we had to bring full attention to this as being the net new differentiator.

The challenge with Social Media and how we were defining it, is that it is very much like the tale of the three blind men as they describe the elephant in front of them based on what they feel with their hands – one says it’s like a tree as he feels the hind leg, another says it’s quite smooth with a sharp point as he describes the tusk and the last one says it’s quite rough and thin like a massive leaf as he describes the ear. They are all right, but no one has the full picture.

The reason we latched onto Social Media and its greater significance, even when so many bright people were arguing against the use of the term in 2005/2006/2007 is simple, but very powerful… and still true today.  Here is the worst kept secret of Social Media that so many often oveis now perhaps overlooked as we get into the nitty gritty details of why it is so pervasive in popular culture and across society. Yes, Social Media is related to technology. Yes, it has to do with connecting people. Yes, it makes things visible globally and in real time with ease. Yes, it’s interactive, enabling two way and multi-way conversations. Yes, its a form of media that is social.

But what makes Social Media so powerful is that it is A BIG IDEA. A new vision for how we can interact with one another as a civilization and a society that is connected, interdependent and stronger/smarter together then we are on our own. That we are one global village/community here on spaceship earth together.

For many of the early adopters and many who are only now coming to realize it’s power today, it represents the idea of a new potential for how things can be, instead of how they are. A delta between what they see as screwed up in our socioeconomic structure where power is far too often concentrated in the hands of the few and individual’s are left without a voice, without recourse and without hope. To many people in the early days, this is exactly why they fought against the broader adoption of the phrase, that they saw the new trumpeters of the Social Media revolution just as they saw those unrealistic Utopians who rallied behind the idea of the Internet creating a new world where Netizens would find a new equality across society, where everyone counted and we treated everyone with respect.

So if we look beyond the objects and the activities that constitute the common view of Social Media, we see that there is something deeper, more meaningful and more significant happening then opening up new channels to sell our products into. While not all of the original visions have yet to be realized for a better tomorrow, we have made great progress and are on our way to even greater progress as Social Business rises and large organizations begin to adapt to a new normal and their engagement defines exactly what that new normal is.

Despite the recent rise of new language to describe this evolution, Social Medi
a will be here for quite a while longer. In fact, it is even more important than ever, because many of the outcomes originally predicted by early pioneers have already become a reality. Every day more and more people across society are finding their voice, are getting connected with their communities and discovering that nothing is impossible.

Yes, Social Media is a big idea, but it’s also just a part of our everyday life. Whether you only use Facebook to stay connected to your family, or you are making a career out of helping organization’s understand and adapt to the new normal, one of the greatest things about Social Media is that you can shape what it means personally to you and what it means to others with whom you are connected.

Which brings me once again to my favorite Howard Rheingold quote “What it is -> is up to you”.