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What is “social media” anyway?

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Defining our terms is actually a fairly important activity when discussing social media and the law.  What do we mean by “social media”?  Is there a standard definition?

To be completely (and painfully) self-referential about it, Wikipedia defines “social media” as:

[a] type of media that is based on conversation and interaction between people online. Where media means digital words, sounds & pictures which are typically shared via the internet and the value can be cultural, societal or even financial.

Social media are media designed to be disseminated through social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques. Social media use web-based technologies to transform and broadcast media monologues into social media dialogues.

Of course, because culture cannot exist without the propogation of jargon and fights over what that jargon really means, debates have inevitably arisen over whether X is really a form of social media.  Thankfully, this is an easy question to answer: Of course X is a form of social media.  Unless you disagree, in which case it is most certainly not.

For many, Twitter is the big question.  In some respects, it can be used like an atomized version of broadcast media.  The New York Times uses the format in that exact fashion.  For others, it is a way of communicating with groups of friends who converse with each other in a cascade of @ symbols (e.g. talk to anyone under the age of 25, and you’ll see what I mean).

Last year, Information Week joined this pointless (though oddly compelling) debate about the nature of how we speak to each other online, reporting on a study which purports to show that Twitter is, essentially a kind of old media model broken into tiny bits:

The findings dispelled the notion that Twitter is a social network, similar to Facebook or MySpace. Instead, Twitter users were more in the business of disseminating news quickly, much of it based on current events, the study found

Agree or not, why do we care?  When we name things, you see, we give them power.  We put them in categories, and how we think about things is driven by how we categorize them (thankfully, I will refrain from getting into obscure discussions of structuralism at this point).  If companies and individuals simply think about Twitter as a broadcast bullhorn, it will influence how they deal with it internally.  If they view it as a way of interacting back-and-forth with others, they will see it in a different light.  There are policy implications to each approach.

And, of course, the obvious answer to how you deal with Twitter (or any other form of communication) depends on how you intend to use it.  If Twitter is intended to be, for you, a conversation with your customers, then it is indeed a form of social media.  If it is intended as a quick, instantaneous way to disseminate information while remaining closed to a response, then it is a PR release.

So what is the takeaway from this debate? While it is useful to pay attention to definitions, it is more important to pay attention to behavior, and how you intend to use these tools.  Your use, not marketing jargon, should drive your policy approaches, and your framework for dealing with communication in all available formats.