What do ‘Social Media’ look like? A visual representation

December 20, 2007

(This post was written mostly for myself and is more of a thought experiement. I would suggest reading this post which is the culmination of this thread of thinking.)

This morning I had Max Kalehoff’s ‘Top Risks To Watch Out For In Your Social Media Strategy’ post for breakfast. The first paragraph (I only got to the second one before I started writing this) got me thinking:

“I’m beginning to hate the term “social media” more everyday. As David Pogue, tech columnist at the NYTimes once said, “What is social media? A bunch of televisions talking to one another at a cocktail party?”

It got me thinking about the meaning of social media. What is a social medium? It seems that the qualifier ‘social’ would set social media apart from unsocial media, though it is usually ‘traditional media’ that social media is usually defined in contradistinction to.

One of the most often quoted differences between social and traditional media is that the former and not the latter are two-way media.

However that would mean that traditional media looks like this…

…in which case two-way media (whereby the receiver is also a sender) look like this:


But there is still something missing. Though the receiver is also a sender it remains unclear who the sender/receiver sends/receives messages to/from. Fig. 2 represents a model of two way communication where each sender is also a receiver, but so does Fig. 3:


This last figure suggests that media create a social unity, by virtue of their broadcast, which allows for two-way communication between the sender and the receiver as well as between the community of receivers. In today’s social media it is not simply the case that receivers of the same message can communicate with one another as well as with the sender as if united by virtue of being receivers of the same message. Rather it looks more like this:


Two things are wrong with Fig. 4:

(a)  There is a centre from which everything begins. In reality there is not much of a centre or even of a multiplicity of centers anymore.

(b)  There are strict lines of communication. In reality however any node can communicate with any other.

That’s the problem with understanding social media visually. By adding these two essential elements to a visual representation of social media you obtain a near-infinite image. Almost infinite in both of these dimensions: near-infinite nodes (as many as senders) with near-infinite lines of connection between them (each node might be connected with potentially every other node).

Call me a champion of capitalism if you will but considering the ease with which an individual in western societies can become a sender nowadays I think this is the best system of social communication in the history of humanity. If anyone knows of a social system that provides with a model of social communication that is as decentralized and therefore non-hierarchical as this I would be more than glad if they would let me know. I realise that there are still nodes that are very powerful senders and that there is always going to be sender-power inequality, but i still think that the model of social communication we are experiencing in recent years is unprecedented and has challenged their power to a high degree. I think it is all part and parcel of the shrinking of the public sphere, understood as a mass market, which Chris Anderson is talking about in the Long Tail.

Finally, to do justice to traditional media, they are better represented by the following communication model rather than Fig. 1:


One difference is that all the two-way lines of communication (between the second and third order nodes) take place via the medium of word-of-mouth. I’m off to read the rest of Max’s post.

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