Sometimes I wonder how I’m still allowed to write a regular column on social media, never mind that it seems to be reasonably popular. I’m unlikely to ever write about Snapchat, for example, partly because I still can’t get my head around the platform, but mainly because focusing on the technical minutiae of specific tools seems irrelevant. It’s like discussing the art of the novel by analyzing the brand of typewriter George Orwell used.
I don’t even like the term “social media” because it defines what we do by the tools with which we do it. Therefore, any discussion of social media can’t help but emphasize the role of the typewriter while reducing the importance of the writer and his craft.
And then there’s the buzzwordy-ness of the phrase. You’re more likely to hear it thrown about marketing departments, newsrooms, and tech start-ups than *ahem* normal conversation. My wife doesn’t “share to social media;” she puts photos of our cats on Facebook. My daughter doesn’t “update social media;” she chats with her friends. Whatever they’re doing, the particular channel is largely irrelevant. If Facebook disappeared tomorrow, it would probably only slow down the cat photos and gossip for five minutes before they switched to alternative methods to continue the same behavior.
Of course they’re both aware of social media as a concept, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard them use the phrase to describe what they’re doing.
(At this point in the original draft, my adorable editor commented that the only other time she hears parents using the term is to attack the concept. “Protect our children from the dangers of social media,” they write, completely missing the irony of discussing their concern on Mumsnet talk boards. Just like previous concerns about rock ‘n’ roll [enjoying music], horror comics [pulp fiction], and video gaming [ummm … playing games], social media becomes a lazy categorization for what other people do, completely blind to the overlaps with our own normalized behavior.)
What is uniquely social about Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn – and the hundreds of other platforms that somehow qualify for the label – that isn’t true for just about any other form of media, digital or otherwise? Crikey, the telephone, letter writing, even prehistoric cave paintings are all media intended to communicate ideas and enable social interactions between two or more people.
As my editor’s comment shows, we often end up using tracked changes and comments within Word documents to communicate and collaborate on the final version of an article. Even Microsoft Word can be a digital social medium.
Sure, that’s a private social interaction between two people collaborating on a single document, whereas discussions of social media often emphasize the more public, broadcast nature of the tools. Yet Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, and Twitter DMs are most commonly used for private interactions within small groups, often only two people. Meanwhile, a Google Doc can have as many as 200 collaborators and can be made public once published. Group size and whether something is public or private are far less important to understanding social media than you might think. We need to look elsewhere.
Creating the buzzword
There are at least three accounts of who first coined the phrase “social media” and how it came to be. As one of these explanations hinges on little more than someone being first to register the domain name, we’ll skip to the other two claims, which are far more revealing.
According to then-AOL executive Ted Leonsis, the phrase was in use internally at AOL in the early 1990s. However, the first recorded use of the term is 1997 when Leonsis discussed providing internet users with “social media, places where they can be entertained, communicate, and participate in a social environment.”
Writer and researcher Darrell Berry maintains that he coined the term in 1994 while developing an online media environment called Matisse. In a 1995 paper called Social Media Spaces, Berry argued that the internet shouldn’t just be an archive of static pages, but a network for users to connect, engage, and interact with each other.
Who said it first matters less than what both tried to articulate. Neither describes definitive features – certainly not in the way most people think of social media. Leonsis’ idea of online places to communicate and participate could just as easily describe the comments thread on a blog, the reviews on Amazon, or even your webmail inbox, yet these are rarely included in discussions of social media today. And Berry’s vision of the internet as one socially interactive network makes our modern usage of “social media” seem ridiculously parochial.
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Social media is … what exactly?
Social media has featured in many court cases over the years, and if there’s one place that will not tolerate a vague, undefined concept, it’s a courtroom. Therefore, many lawyers have attempted to come up with a satisfactory legal definition of social media. In 2012, the California legislature settled on this gem of precision …
“social media” means an electronic service or account, or electronic content, including, but not limited to, videos, still photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, email, online services or accounts, or Internet Web site profiles or locations.
The California legislature found it impossible to delineate between social media and every other form of digital or electronic media, online and off. By this definition, someone could legally argue those private and *ahem* “artistic” photographs stored on a celebrity’s smartphone are social media.
California isn’t alone. Every other social media policy or legal definition I have investigated is similarly broad, open-ended, and extremely unhelpful. In fact, the social media guidelines of the Australian Communications and Media Authority hedges further by stating, “Social media also includes all other emerging electronic/digital communication applications.” Way to cover your ass there. There is no unique characteristic, feature or defining trait – or even a combination of such.Every #socialmedia policy or legal definition I have investigated is broad, open-ended & unhelpful. @kimota Click To Tweet
Social media as an idea, as a concept, clearly exists – if only subjectively. Your idea of social media may differ in small or large ways from mine. But social media as a thing, as something knowable that exists in the concrete rather than the abstract, is nothing more than a myth. It’s a mirage.
And when you believe a mirage is real, bad things can happen.
Why this matters
By treating social media as somehow different (albeit, undefinably so) we fall into the trap of “social media exceptionalism.” If social media is supposedly unique or otherwise distinct from other media, then all previous rules and practices don’t apply. Its special nature requires us to develop new regulations, create separate workflows, and focus on different metrics. How often have you heard or read someone argue that social media can’t be held accountable or measured in the same way as other marketing activities? Exactly.
Some have exploited this exceptionalism by popularizing the idea that social media marketing is a kind of alchemy, beyond the ken of mere mortals. Only they can exploit the secret algorithm or access every obscure feature. So you invite in the social media shaman to utter strange incantations about engagement, ranking factors, and influence, reinforcing the magical otherness of these tools.
This belief that certain technologies and platforms are inherently social while others are not reinforces the flawed notion that social interaction is a product of the tool and not the person using it. This risk absolves us of taking responsibility for our own creativity, civility, and communication skills. Why bother if just by sharing an unimaginative branded meme or self-serving article to social it somehow magically becomes social content?The flawed notion is that social interaction is a product of the tool & not the person using it. @kimota Click To Tweet
Just as buying a typewriter doesn’t make you a novelist, setting up a Facebook page doesn’t imbue you with professional social skills. They are still your responsibility. Ultimately, your skills as a communicator – your way with words, your empathy, your willingness to interact – are what should define your use of a medium, any medium, as truly social.Your way w/ words, empathy, & interaction are what should define use of a medium as truly social. @kimota Click To Tweet
And then what use would we have for a phrase like “social media”?
The Art and Science of Emotional Engagement
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute