The Problem With Social Media


stock.xchng image by kindhelperAm I the only one struggling with a consistent and coherent definition for the term “social media?” What is social media, who came up with the term, and who defines it now?

In my quest to better understand why and how we use the term “social media,” I began at Wikipedia:

Social media is media designed to be disseminated through social interaction, created using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques. Social media uses Internet and web-based technologies to transform broadcast media monologues (one to many) into social media dialogues (many to many). It supports the democratization of knowledge and information, transforming people from content consumers into content producers.

I can’t say the above definition is wrong, but it seems too narrow to me. The first questions that come to my head when I read that social media is just about publishing and broadcasting is “But what about Web 2.0 technologies? Where do they fit in? Aren’t they a part of social media?”

The Wikipedia definition of social media continues with:

Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein define social media as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content.”

The definition continues to focus on content production, and I say that the narrowness of that definition is wrong. I see social media as being more than just publishing and broadcasting, and I think that the word “media” in social media may be misunderstood or misused.

What is Media?

In our haste to label things — in this case the tools we are using for communication and interaction — someone forgot that “media” has multiple meanings, so some of us took the term “social media” to mean one thing, while the rest of us understood it to mean something completely different.

For consistency’s sake, I went back to Wikipedia to check how it defined “media.” Of the multiple definitions, here are the ones that I thought applied to the word “media” in the term “social media”:

In communications: In communication, media (singular medium) are the storage and transmission channels or tools used to store and deliver information or data. It is often referred to as synonymous with mass media or news media, but may refer to a single medium used to communicate any data for any purpose.

A medium (plural media) is a carrier of something. Common things carried by media include information, art, or physical objects. A medium may provide transmission or storage of information or both. The industries which produce news and entertainment content for the mass media are often called “the media” (in much the same way the newspaper industry is called “the press”).

In this light, the limitation of the definition of “social media” to publishing and broadcasting falls apart.

A few years ago, I began using the following diagram to encapsulate the many media — or tools, platforms, channels — that made up social media:

The diagram above reflects the more expansive view of social media; using “media” to mean “the storage and transmission channels or tools used to store and deliver information or data.

So is this wrong? If you are going by the narrow publishing and broadcast definition, then it might be incorrect to say that Cloud Working (by that I mean producing work using cloud-based SaaS tools), for example, is social media. But then again, to work in the cloud, one must publish something on the web that is consumed — or collaborated on — by others, often producing new forms of the original content, right?

And what about widgets and RSS feeds? These are tools for distributing content produced elsewhere, but they aren’t tools for actually producing new content. One could argue that these tools aren’t social. However, they are the conduits of content from social sources such as social networks and blogs. So are they social media tools or not?

How about a content rating site or bookmarking site? While Digg and Delicious aren’t exactly content production sites, they allow users to rate, comment on and aggregate content in a more “social” interactive environment so, in a sense, they are social media tools because there is “social” and “publishing” involved.

The Evolution of the Term “Social Media”

How did the term “social media” evolve, and how can there be different understandings of this globally-used term? I think part of the problem is that some people believe that social media “replaced” Web 2.0 as a term while others believe that social media is a “subset” of Web 2.0.

For clarification, Wikipedia’s definition of Web 2.0 is:

…web applications that facilitate interactive information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design, and collaboration on the World Wide Web.

If one believes that social media is a subset of Web 2.0, like this:

Then social media would be the social tools and channels that fall under the broader Web 2.0 landscape of tools. That would mean that we should probably still be using the term Web 2.0 (annoying as it is) to refer to the “not exactly social” tools we’re using on the web.

Alternatively, one could see social media as an evolution of Web 2.0 tools, like this:

But if social media is an evolution of Web 2.0, then what do we call the “less than social” tools we’re using?

So, which is it?

  1. Social media is a subset of Web 2.0, so anything “not very social” are still Web 2.0 tools.
  2. Social media is an evolution of Web 2.0, so its definition includes peripherally social tools or tools ancillary to social tools.

I continue to gravitate away from the definition that social media tools must involve publishing or broadcasting because it is too narrow.

Who Coined the Term “Social Media?”

In 2007, danah m. boyd of the School of Information at the University of California-Berkeley and Nicole B. Ellison of the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media at Michigan State University, published the paper “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.” In it, the first mention of “social media” was in this sentence:

Furthermore, as the social media and user-generated content phenomena grew, websites focused on media sharing began implementing SNS features and becoming SNSs themselves. Examples include Flickr (photo sharing), Last.FM (music listening habits), and YouTube (video sharing).

By their definition in this paper, social media was focused initially and primarily on social networks.

In a February 2009 speech, boyd goes on to say this about social media :

Social media is the latest buzzword in a long line of buzzwords. It is often used to describe the collection of software that enables individuals and communities to gather, communicate, share, and in some cases collaborate or play. In tech circles, social media has replaced the earlier fave “social software.” Academics still tend to prefer terms like “computer-mediated communication” or “computer-supported cooperative work” to describe the practices that emerge from these tools and the old skool academics might even categorize these tools as “groupwork” tools. Social media is driven by another buzzword: “user-generated content” or content that is contributed by participants rather than editors.

What is really telling is when boyd explains how we got from “Web 2.0” to “social media:”

But for the last few years, everyone’s been a-buzz with the idea of “social media.” Right now, those who want VC backing need to bake the “social” into any Web2.0 app they create. There are many new genres of social media that have gained traction here: blogs, wikis, media-sharing sites, social network sites, social bookmarking, virtual worlds, microblogging sites, etc. These tools are part of a broader notion of “Web2.0.” Yet-another-buzzword, Web2.0 means different things to different people.

So perhaps we can blame — or credit — those who wanted VC backing on the convoluted use of “social” in everything that was formerly known as Web 2.0. At least we have an explanation for the (over)use of “social” in social media.

What do you think? How do you define “social media” and what tools do we use that are not social media tools?

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Social Media in the Enterprise

Photo by stock.xchng user kindhelper


Mal Williamson

I set up a company in 2002 called Interactive Social Media Ltd. The vision back then was of interactive kiosks placed in community settings. The feedback from the kiosks by way of content selections, quizzes and surveys creates the 2-way conversation that I thought was “social”. But it was not individual int he way personal identity has become paramount to social networks.
Our focus was, and still is, that of the community. Understanding a whole community by engaging them on their terms in their place.
The tradition I worked from was social documentary and Grierson! Purposeful, issue-based etc.
We changed our name a few years later to Engage Now because the term “social media” had come to mean something different to our intent. We love it but it isnt quite what we do.
Do people think that there is perhasp a wider idea of what "social media" is? Two-way and conversational but community-based rather than indivualised networking?
Historically-speaking a yearor so after we started The Guardian ran a London conference with the term "social media" in its title. So I don
t think we were first to use the term – but I`d love to know who was…. Grierson?

Winston "Dub" Riley

I think that all of that is correct. I think the biggest surprises will be the unexpected which we can not predict. We know everything is going mobile but what about “deviceless?”
This sounds crazy but we will have screens in our glasses and we’ll talk to “air” to “call mom.” Technology is moving so fast that we won’t recognize social media in a few years. We couldn’t possibly imagine where this is all going. I can tell you this. Go use Google terms or whatever it is called. Now try matching Facebook with any term you can think of. Nothing will stand up to it. Oprah? Not within a thousand miles! God? Doesn’t register. Economic crisis? Forget it, not there. Twitter, YouTube, Porn–doesn’t matter. Facebook flattens everything–by a landslide. So we know this much…Facebook is the biggest phenomena of all time for ever. Now consider that it has taken us 6.9 billion years to get here but it is all changing to unrecognizable landscape over time spans of a year.
Humans are social. Media is communications. The blurring is taking place between business and personal. TV, Radio, print, et al is in cascading collapse. The day’s of free content will be crashing to a halt. But how? When? Your guess is as good as mine!

Priyanka D

there also lot of different terms like digital media, web media, online media I guess no one really knows exactly the different between them either :p

Eric Barrett

I talk daily to people about “social media” which covers more than just social media. I find that if I use terms like “Web 2.0” or “the cloud” I get a bunch of blank stares. Like it or not, social media is just an easy to understand term that people can remember, and sort of relate to. Is it 100% accurate? No. But it helps people get a little closer to the truth, and sometimes that’s all that matters.

Tom - jobs from home

The problem with social media in my opinion is that many join for all the wrong reasons.Social media is about sharing useful information, not marketing some products or services.I send useful information to these sites (like this post for instance) not sales letters like some people do.

Doubledown Tandino

@Tom .. there’s no wrong reason to join a social media network. Everyone has their own goals… some don’t even have goals when they join…
But advertising, pitching, marketing is just as valid a reason to join social networking as sharing, caring, and spreading information.
The key is all about ‘enrolling conversations’… that is what disguises a person’s intentions to advertise.

Aliza Sherman

I agree with Doubledown – we all participate in any aspect of anything because we have our own goals and “agenda.” But the question is “are we doing this properly and respectfully.” If you enter the sandbox, you must consider more than just yourself. Play nice.

Julie Drizin

Thanks for a fabulous article. I think we culturally shifte from “2.0” to social because numbers can be so cold and alienating. Plus, what comes next 2.1 or 3.0 and where does it end? Sitting here alone, in front of my laptop, in the silence of my home office, constantly checking email, FB, Twitter, RSS feeds, etc. I am reminded that humans are social beings, that we long for connection.Technology that enables us to bridge geographic and other divides must be a force for good. In the online digital world we can be connected to as many people as we want in the time it takes to click the word “post” or “send.” There are no longer six degrees of separation. It’s true that that the web is over-flowing with over-sharing, but I still believe what I learned in pre-school – “Sharing is Good.”


Even the term ‘social’ could be defined a bit more, especially from a B2B or B2C perspective. It’s about establishing relationships and building loyalty through communities via information sharing. Love the graphic… can I use it in a presentation I’m doing this summer in Nashville… giving you credit/reference, of course?

Aliza Sherman

The graphic with the circles isn’t mine but something gathered from the collective cyberspace. I can’t even remember when I first saw a version of it but have seen the same concept adapted by others over the last few years. You can certainly mention this article as the source where you found it, but I can’t claim it as entirely my own.


I think the key is the term “media” as in medium. It is about publishing. The other key is what happens to discrete packets of published information, can they be shared, commented on or otherwise interacted with.

In this sense the internet itself is becoming a social medium through the ability to share content to social platforms using URLs. This is a kind of retroengineered social medium but it works.

In this sense I think that social media is not an either/or state but has a graduated scale, some sites are more social media than others.

Aliza Sherman

I’ve actually spent the last week using “social web” and “social communications” in some of my writing and teaching – and I really like how they hone in on the aspects of the platform (Web) and the interactions (communications) that “social media” simply doesn’t do.

Doubledown Tandino

Great editorial. I agree in so many ways.
“terms” and “labels” just seem to come about, either due to use or misuse…

Me, I like to call social media things like sharing on facebook or twitter. I use the term “new media” or “creative media” much more than I use social media…. because, well, based on my experience, it isn’t really social at all… it’s just a bunch of people saying “look what I can do”

“web 2.0” is a broad scope of this new form of internet we’re all using (as your diagram shows). Once, there was websites and email. .. now there are websites that are inclusive to the whole community. It was definitely an upgrade. Web 1.0 is a website where a user browses and reads, and moves on. The upgrade to that is a network, where everyone uses the multiple tools built into the site…. and most of those tools are forms of media… hence, “social media” and “social networking” Just my 2 cents.

Aliza Sherman

I like the idea of using “social web” so then tools become “social web tools” vs. “social media tools” – I think the word “media” gets taken differently depending on your references but Web is a good, more general touchpoint for most.


Great graphics and overview of social media. I think in this emerging technology, it’s important to question others’ definitions of it.


I agree. I generally use the term social web unless I am speaking specifically about media (in the form of journalism or PR)


I agree – the term has been used so widely and for so many purposes, it loses its meaning. It’s come to represent more of the tools of social media than what people actually do with them.

It also gets used interchangeably with “social networking,” which isn’t the same thing.

To my way of thinking, “social media” is the content itself, designed to be shared and deconstructed by everyone else. On the other hand, “social networking” is what you call all of that reading and deconstruction of other people’s stuff.

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