What is ‘social media’?

January 18, 2008

Let’s ponder the question in the singular. What is a social medium? Well it’s quite obvious that the qualifier ‘social’ sets social apart from unsocial media.

Contemporary discussions around social media however, tend to define social media, in contradistinction to traditional media. Does that mean that traditional media i.e. pre-Internet media are unsocial? And what would an unsocial medium be like?

All media are social: unsocial media are broken media

I think that every medium of communication is social in so far it achieves its essential role, that is, to successfully mediate communication between two or more people. Unsocial media are broken media. All media are by definition social.

The most oft quoted distinction between social and traditional media has been the direction of communication. Social media are two-way while traditional media are one-way. But communication does not have to be two-way. That is why we speak of one-way communication; because it involves the successful communication of one person’s message to another. But then pre-Internet media are also social. Then why is everybody talking about ‘Social Media’? What is new about them?

Because there is something absolutely novel about this kind of media:

  • Because they allow everyday people, every member of what was formerly called the audience, to easily become a media owner/publisher. They give every pair of eyeballs a mouthpiece.
  • Because they allow their audience to become a self-conscious social unity whose members can identify and communicate with one another. They are not isolated in their own homes and therefore they are not passive.
  • Because they enable their audience to communicate with the publisher through the same user-friendly medium.

I ve written a blog post that discusses in depth what is novel about the so called ‘social media’ by contrasting their features with traditional media. If you have the time, check it out here.

Is the name ‘social media’ appropriate if all media are social?

From this point of view the name ‘social media’ is not really correct in that social media is a characteristic of all media that work properly – is not the exclusive property of ‘new media’. However as the philosopher Kripke taught us this is not the way names work, and, therefore not the way they should work. Darthmouth was a village built near the mouth of the river Dart. After a few hundred years the river Dart is nowhere near Dartmouth. Nevertheless people’s reference to the village works just fine. Nobody is confused by the fact that the mouth of the river Dart is no where near Dartmouth.

Similarly, although all media are by definition social, the majority of the people that read, write and discuss about social media, have reserved this term to refer exclusively to internet media such as blogs, wikis, social forums and networks etc And this works just fine. Everybody understands what particular media ‘social media’ refers to.

Is the name ‘new media’ appropriate?

Similarly in 20 years time these media are not going to be new. But we may still be referring to them as ‘new media’. Therefore although this name is also inappropriate in so far it carries out its task correctly – that everyone using it refers to the same kind of media – it is also a good name.

Is the name ‘digital media’ appropriate?

This name, as Fidel has suggested (read his comment below) is also not appropriate given that there are digital media that do not have the characteristics most people ascribe to what they refer to as ‘social media’ (e.g. blogs, wikis, forums, ratings, tagging etc). Take as an example a brochureware website. It is digital but it certainly isn’t social.

Do we need a name?

As is so often the case it is the trip that matters and not the destination. It is the baptism debate itself that is fruitful not the name(s) we will end up calling the baby by.

So what are social media?

The reason why the term ‘social media’ (blogs, email, social networks, wiki, forums etc) is so important is because it tries to isolate a species of media that all share certain significant characteristics. Although in the aforementioned discussion I have been unable to find an appropriate name for them, I think it is important to present and discuss their definitive characteristics:

1. Media access


  • Old media: Handful of broadcasters. Everyday people have no ownership\access to the mass media as the cost\skill barriers involved are unsurpassable [3].
  • Internet media: Audience as broadcasters. Be they one-to-many or many-to-many, new media due to their minimal access requirements (cost\skills\time) allow ordinary people to easily participate as owners\publishers of their own media outlets. Millions of once-off, part- or full time broadcasters.


  • Old media: Uniform content and centralised filtering of content. Same message sent to everybody. Due to high costs of content production and media distribution only the content that addresses the needs of the head rather than the tail of demand is broadcast. As the mass-market appeal becomes every media outlets priority, uniform messages end up homogenizing society.
  • Internet media: The long tail of content. No matter how idiosyncratic, niche, controversial or even perverse your message is there will be someone who will be interested in it. Given the low price tag and knowledge barrier involved in producing and distributing content it is cost-effective to do so. Given the passion of most everyday new media publishers in the topic they discuss it is worthwhile to do so.

2. Direction of communication

Publisher – Audience

  • Old media: One-way communication. The publisher’s monologue.
  • Internet media: Two-way, interactive communication between the publisher and the audience.

Audience Community

  • Old media: Isolated viewers with no means to identify each others as receivers of the same message and therefore of their common point of reference, shared interests etc. No means to achieve a self-awareness\consciousness of the audience community.
  • Internet media: The option to see and interact with other viewers of the same content, creates an audience that instead of consisting of isolated and passive viewers constitutes an active, self-conscious community. This feature is present in most Web 2.0 applications.

3. Content distribution

  • Old media: Fleeting interruption.
  • Internet: Permanent – Targeted. Even in cases of one-to-many online mass media such as blogs, video sharing etc they are unobtrusive and targeted, given that they are accessible only after one searches for them, are recommended by a friend, or responds to signpoists that alert him/her of their existence. The content posted in the internet’s media channels be it a blog, YouTube, FlickR, Social networks etc is permanent and therefore accessible at any time.

So what do you think?

Any more appropriate names? Any characteristics of ‘social media’ that I have forgotten?


2 Responses to “What is ‘social media’?”

  1. fidel chavez Says:

    Online publishers (e.g. WSJ.com) and “old guard media” (e.g NBC) can still deliver their content digitally. Social media, to me, is not whether it is digital or not. It is the manner in which the audience’s cooperation/commentary/opinions are solicited and integrated into the message itself.

    It is not that something is online that makes it social. in fact, you can have a ton of digital content that is entirely individualistic. Porn and video games are pretty anti-social media in most cases. That isn’t to say that social participation cannot be included. XBOX/PS3 have that built in. However, the media has evolved quite happily as a one-on-computer communications paradigm.

    It think of social media as a methodology/philosophy/ideology more than a media per se. When a media requests comment, solicits feedback and integrates that feedback in such a way that the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, then I believe you have a social-ized media. Consider the Rocky Horror Picture Show. You can consume that content in various ways. As a movie but also as a social phenomena. The participation in the event, the spectacle, the sport, the collaborative entertainment of it all makes the event MORE than just the content. it becomes a seed that helps bring people together around a common theme, art form, vector, yo uname it. and that cluster becomes a de facto community. and that community can, for the fleeting moment, effect some attitudinal shift, emotive connection, decision support, etc. and this is where the brands want to jump into the fray.

    to me, social media is about how individuals become aware of themselves as an extended or distributed system. they do this by way of the content kernel (e.g. the blog post, viral video, chat, threaded discussion, etc.) These media are in and of themselves not new. however, the social importance of term Social Media comes into play when users leverage old media content to become self-aware and/ or to then take some action or make some conclusion on what to buy, vote for, etc.

    The emergent aspect of the decision-making, the decentralized aspect of the process makes big corps nervous and fascinated. there is no ring leader. no single editor, no single merchandiser. and yet, decisions can be made by way of the crowd. or perception of a crowd in the abstract. there is no single voice. and yet the collection of voices, reviews, opinions, recommendations can be aggregated to such an extent as to sway opinion. and THAT is why we even care about this notion.

    it is not video, blogs, chat or any specific technology that interests marketers. it is the idea that a decentralized decisionmaking process is emerging and that it icannot be owned or easily gamed or manipulated that has media buyers and brand marketers up in arms. you cannot BUY an ad for an emergent opinion that has not yet emerged. you cannot make a market in sentiment that has not yet arisen.

    social media speaks to the phenomena that groups can have a collective consciousness and can use various forms of information (online or offline) to arrive at purchase decisions. the power advantage then is not in the capital, but rather in the community. a community that is emergent and not easily bought or manipulated. were it easily manipulated, we’d not have a term called social media. we’d still be calling it just digital or web marketing and advertising. social wouldn’t add any value to the discussion.

  2. theopapada Says:

    Fidel you are absolutely right. There are media that are anything but ‘social’ and therefore the word ‘digital’ would be overly general and would not isolate the properties of the media that we do call social. Although all media are social, when people refer to ‘social media’ they usually refer to media that have certain characteristics which are not shared by either both traditional media or by some digital media. For example a brochure website, although a digital medium, is certainly not a social medium. You are right that digital media is therefore not a correct name for this. I have amended the post accordingly to reflect your observation (I’ve deleted the section that proposes the name ‘digital media’ as an uninsightful but correct name for what is currently, and wrongly called ‘social media’).

    I have also added the characteristics of social media from a post I wrote some time ago (The social role of the internet Part I). I think they capture the definitive characteristics all ‘social media’ (I am here using the word in the same way most people do) have. However this means that the quest for a proper name for what is currently, and as I believe I have shown mistakenly, called ‘social media’ that satisfies:
    • The fact that all media are social (lest they don’t work).
    • That ‘new’ media will pretty soon not be new.
    • That ‘digital’ media includes media that are not social.

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