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September 24th, 2008

What is Social Media?

About a month ago a smart friend of mine, Ethan Bauley, posed that question to a few friends, myself included. On the surface it seemed like an easy question to answer. In fact, at first I rolled my eyes at the question feeling like it had jumped the shark to even be asking that question today. But, dozens of emails later and about a month of discussion has produced what I felt are some compelling thought on the question. I’d like to share a summary of our discussion points publicly to jumpstart some rework of the Wikipedia entry on social media.

Popular usage vs. need for a standardized definition of social media

The first problem we uncovered was the need to delineate popular usage from what feels like the need for some standards of the term. As companies move further into the social web, the need grows for a common language with shared meanings. Our assessment is that it would be good for people looking at the Wikipedia entry on social media to explain the difference between:

  • Current, popular usage of the term “social media” and;
  • The need for a more rigorous, standardized definition for a bevy of interconnected terms, social media included.

So, how do we go about writing a Wikipedia article that objectively covers what the popular usage of social media is while also identifying the conflicts among the various usages to drive us toward a more standardized definition? We felt that we don’t have to crack the definition, just clearly present the current state that the defining process is in. An article with the following may do the trick:

  • Initial uses of the term social media
  • Current, popular usage
  • Known problems with strict usage of the term

If we draft something that captures this discussion in the above format, then the community can work on two follow-up projects that will help flesh out the article’s details. First, we can do a survey to gather stats about what people believe the current, popular usage of social media is. Then, we can also facilitate a more formal dissection of the term through our blogs to build momentum and interest in drilling down on what social media is. I don’t suggest we wait to update the Wikipedia article before we do either of those two projects. I don’t think the survey would be hard to pull off, but a more in-depth exploration on what social media is and isn’t will take some time.

4 big questions that need to be answered to define social media

While these may not be all of the big questions that need be answered in order to define social media, they were the ones we saw emerge from our discussion, which are as follows:

  • Does media need to operate on or at least integrate with TCP/IP?
  • Does media earn a “social” designation from having a particular set of features or from applied usage?
  • Does the participating audience size matter?
  • In order for media to be considered social, is there a ratio of message creation devices to creators as well as message reception devices to receivers?

This post is intended to start the social media definition meme by sharing these 4 fundamental problems with the term’s definition. I’m sharing this here to vet the content before we draft a revision of the Wikipedia article on social media.


Big thanks to Ethan for starting this discussion and inviting me to be a part of it from the start. Also many thanks goes out to the other participants from the original email chain: Taylor Davidson, Bryan Landers, and Clinton Schaff.

Filed in Social Media

Add Your Comment5 Responses to “What is Social Media?”

Ethan Bauley on September 24th, 2008 at 4:14 pm

Thanks for the kind words, Justin.

Here’s a quick summary of my initial email:


I hope we can make some progress here for the benefit of the Wikipedia page. The deeper I get into this, I see why there’s not so much activity on the Wikipedia page; the time investment needed for meaningful discussion is non-trivial!

Justin Kistner on September 24th, 2008 at 4:34 pm

I see why there’s not so much activity on the Wikipedia page; the time investment needed for meaningful discussion is non-trivial!

Great point! I think that’s why we’re seeing a lot of wiki companies grow from talk pages to communication systems. A talk page just doesn’t have the functionality to handle the political sensitivities and idea vetting required to come to a rough consensus on emerging spaces. That is particularly true if the best knowledge stake holders are not avid Wikipedia users.

Taylor Davidson on September 25th, 2008 at 1:44 pm

No question there needs to be more of a clearinghouse for the cacophony of thoughts and debates over social media. Eventually the definition will reside in Wikipedia, but perhaps the evolution of the term evolves throughout the rest of the web: open the discussion from the Wikipedia enclave to the social media echochamber to the rest of the Internet “thought leaders” 🙂

While many will argue that it’s unnecessary or too early to define “social media”, as it begins to get deeper and broader into culture and business, users and practicioners are finding it more difficult to explain what is going on and everybody has a different idea about what’s going on.

Justin really points out the key part, that we need to develop a better understanding the elements or characteristics that are the key components of what we call social media. Working on this will allow us to stress-test the definition with examples of past, present and future tactics.

Eventually, perhaps, we’ll develop a way to deal with the inevitable layers of social media and find terms that can describe the sub-segments of social media; but that will only come when we can start breaking down the components.

Looking forward to more…

Justin Kistner on September 25th, 2008 at 2:49 pm

…users and practicioners are finding it more difficult to explain what is going on and everybody has a different idea about what’s going on.

Well said, Taylor! And, I agree with you. Stress testing the definition of social media can help us shake out the rest of the language needed to discuss the medium coherently. I think Ethan helped with the definition of social media by tackling it’s counterpart. I move we strike “traditional media” from the record. 🙂

Bryan Landers on September 26th, 2008 at 4:08 am

Very cool, Justin. Thanks for the mention.

I’m looking forward to when we’re breaking down the dynamics/elements in all these wonderful new mechanisms for communicating to figure out the best ways to accomplish real world results. It’s deceptive that the latest social media services are so seemingly trivial to most people (outside the techochamber) and whimsically branded.

There’s a lot more to be clarified. Cheers for kick-starting the exchange.