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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The true meaning of Social Media

"Social Media?  Well, ya got yer Social, and, um, ya got her Media..."

In some recent conversations, I've been struck by definitions of Social Media that make misleading assumptions.  I don't accept one can determine the meaning of the term without acknowledging the sources, the etymology of this compound term.

The Social aspect of Social Media, considered alone, is not essentially different from previous social environments on the Internet and prior to the Internet's prevalence.  The conversation is the same as the conversations that even now continue in other Web forums.  It is the same as conversations that proceed in email discussion forums, some hosted on private email servers, some on semi-public, free services like Yahoo Groups or Google Groups.

It is the same as conversations that have gone on for years on Usenet, the Internet's original venue for public conversation.  It is the same as the forums on Compuserve or the original America Online, and the same as the communities we formed in BBS forums back in the day.  This is not to devalue these groups.  Quite the contrary; I spent over a decade involved with a social group first formed in a BBS network forum, then moved to Yahoo Groups when the BBS nets went dark.  I still value those old friendships.

Likewise, I don't think one can define Social Media assuming that the Media element, considered alone, is substantially different from what we've taken to calling Old Media.  Podcasting, Vidcasting, audio and video streaming, are by themselves all broadcast media.  They have been made easier to create, so there are more people -- including myself -- creating these media.  That ease of creation, and variety of creators, is what defines it as New Media.  But without the socialization and discussion, it's not so very different from the Old Media.  By itself, is still essentially the same, and the term Media in Social Media is present because it is comparable to radio, television, or any other broadcast medium.

The Medium in Social Media is only different in that, and to the extent that, it is allowed to be motivated, moderated and driven by the content of the Social conversation more or less attached to that Medium.  Likewise, the Social conversation in Social Media is only different in that, and to the extent that, it is allowed to be
motivated, moderated and driven by the content of the Media content more or less attached to that conversation.

I host and produce several New Media programs, including two podcasts, and podcast serializations of five different novels.  There is very little conversation associated with any of these Media.  I'm essentially broadcasting them -- to fair-sized audiences, granted -- but without any conversation with which to interact.  So my podcasts are to all intents and purposes New Media, but not particularly Social Media.  They could be.  They simply aren't, or aren't much.

I would wish that those who choose to discuss the nature of Social Media remember those roots, and not let that topical conversation become muddled due to forgetfulness.

What other conclusions could I take away from this?  That "talk radio," even using old-school non-Internet broadcast technologies, is still Social Media, for one.   That the "Letters to the Editor" section in a local newspaper might well be more "Social Media" than any podcast.

For another, a Social Media production does not require a conversation exclusively its own.  At least one of the podcasts I listen to is deliberately derived from a previously-existing Yahoo Group.  And a New Media production could choose to be driven by another, existing conversation, if one does not spontaneously arise from the production itself, and still be Social Media to an extent.  A Social conversation could arise, driven by an existing production (see "fan-based") but not directly influencing the content of that production, and still qualify somewhat as Social Media.  The Social is still Social, the Media is still Media.

In an ideal world, the "Social" and the "Media" are equal partners.  But that's a goal to be achieved, not a rule to live by.

I'm just sayin'.

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