Thursday, September 1, 2011

Getting Over "Social Media"

A LinkedIn member recently proposed that we need a new definition of "social media"—without, unfortunately, offering a clue which of its many, continually evolving definitions might require revision.

I don't think we need a new definition of social media. I think we need to get over it.

When we are able to accept it as no more exceptional than ordinary conversation it will finally achieve the status of an unremarkable, unnoticed, natural and ubiquitous human activity. It will become simply, as Brian Solis points out, "media."

The end-point of the evolution of "social media" is its disappearance from our collective consciousness. It's when nobody ever asks about it or thinks about it, much less promotes it or professes to understand it better than other people. It's when the phrase becomes meaningless. Once everybody is a "social media expert," nobody will be—and that's when it will have achieved all it can.

I detest the phrase "social media."

All media are "social." The word means "relating to human society and how it's organized, relating to the way people in groups interact and behave toward one another, living (or preferring to live) as part of a community."

All communications media have a role in organizing society, uniting or dividing communities, and establishing standards of behavior. It's the nature of communication; defined by James Carey as "a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed." "Society," Carey tells us, "is possible because of the binding forces of shared information circulating in an organic system." The purpose of all media is to share information and, thus, bind society together—to be social.

While traditional media may seem to lack the participation of the audience as producers—which is generally considered a defining characteristic of "social media"— even newspapers invite letters to the editor, radio stations broadcast calls from listeners, and American Idol asks viewers to vote.

People certainly talk with one another about the content of all media. We join reading clubs or chat about books with our friends. We discuss TV programs at the water cooler. We buy things, sell products, vote, and form relationships based on media messages.

Thus, "traditional" media's social aspects extend beyond its physical or audio-visual manifestations, and I think it's wise to think of any medium as including not only those manifestations, but also its extended social influence. In that sense, some part of the "Arab Spring" uprisings and the recent demonstrations at our local rapid transit stations here in San Francisco are not merely the results of, but also components of communications media. Cause and effect are parts of the same phenomenon, and part of any medium is its intended or unintended social effects. We are all radio, and it is us.

We use the term "social media" to lump together all manner of Internet-enabled, audience-participation communication solutions: Facebook and LinkedIn, Quora and Pandora, Twitter and Foursquare, Yelp, Digg, Flickr, Google Groups, multi-user games, and hundreds if not thousands more. I propose that this "lumping" does a disservice, distracting our attention from the unique attributes, functionality, and uses of each.

Some respondents to the LinkedIn question proposed that the coffee houses and pubs of old were the social media of their day. So were newspapers, as the literate few read them to groups of friends and neighbors who discussed their contents. Nobody bothered to call all of these "social media" or needed to think of them as anything other than what they were.

"Social media," the term, serves only two purposes, it seems to me. It's a handy buzzword to give cachet to the products of entrepreneurs and thereby capitalize on press and public fascination with such things; and it's shorthand to express that a particular medium is new, participatory and, probably, Internet-enabled. It's a disguise, not a description. It conceals the social aspects of all media.

I'm rather tired of hearing about social media; I'd prefer to use it instead of talking about it. And I wish everyone else would do the same.