By Jonathan Crossfield published May 12, 2017

Is it Time to Abolish Social Media?


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.

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

A version of this article originally appeared in the April issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bimonthly, print magazine.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Jonathan Crossfield

If it involves putting words in a row with the occasional punctuation, then Jonathan has most likely given it a bash; from copy writing to screenwriting, blogging to journalism. He has won awards for his articles on digital marketing and his over-opinionated blog, Atomik Soapbox. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Kimota.

Other posts by Jonathan Crossfield

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  • Priscilla McKinney

    Great article. Great writing. Food for thought: I’ve had always reminded people that the telegraph was social media. Enjoy that one-liner!

  • Joan

    Right on target, finally some truth. Particularly like the part about the cat videos and the gossip would just continue. Every form of communication is social media, it’s the means by which we socialize.

  • Brian Driggs

    This. Oh, so much this.

    There is nothing social about endlessly pimping promotional, corporate content into crowds you’ve zero intention of actually engaging with on any level beyond leadgen. In fact, I’d bet I’m not alone in feeling brands (read: marketers) tend to ruin every fun new channel as soon as it’s clear get some value out of it.

    You want to be social, be SOCIAL. Listen to people and respond to them. Wherever they are. Stop telling people to follow you or like your content. And start giving them reasons to follow you and content worth liking.

    Personally, I think it would excellent if a major platform like Twitter or Facebook just deleted all corporate and brand accounts, forcing everyone to use their own, personal accounts to engage. We might actually see an uptick in value and adoption.

  • Seph

    Great piece and well articulated. I’m afraid I disagree with your thesis, though. It breaks down for me with your analogy, or, more accurately, simile, about the novel and instrument to create it. I do think a separate term is needed to classify the type of human interaction that takes place using Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. (And I’m OK with your argument that the differences between the many platforms are minimal and that humans would exercise their apparently latent desire to photograph their meals even if Facebook disappeared this afternoon.) But as a category, “social” media is different from “regular” media. What makes it unique to me is its democratic nature. It’s accessible to all and all participants have an equal voice. To adjust your original simile, I think your efforts to put social media in the same category as other media is like lumping all of Shakespeare’s output into a single category of “writing,” ignoring the differences between poems, plays or sonnets. I agree with everything you wrote. All forms of media are social. I’m not crazy about “social” either as a label, but I think it would be a mistake to not recognize this form of media as something unique and distinct.

    • Kimota

      Except you’re falling into the same trap. “I do think a separate term is needed to classify the type of human interaction that takes place using Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, etc.” Minimal or not, if that’s true it should be possible to define that difference in such a specific way that it clearly rules something in or out as social media. And no one has yet been able to.

      The democratic, open to all nature you describe is just as true of many other things that don’t get credited with being social media. We’re interacting right now in an open online forum beneath the article that anyone can join. Is this therefore social media?

      The difference between a poem, play or sonnet – or even the difference between Shakespeare’s works and all other writing – are clearly and unambiguously defined (the latter definition being “Shakespeare wrote it”) The same is not true for social media. Shakespeare’s works of course are a subcategory of the larger category of writing, but they’re not treated as exceptional or distinct to the art of writing, except for his individual talent in working with (and occasionally adding to) those same rules. The difference is defined – the difference is him. His technique can be analysed, even quantified and these have of course influenced all writing. But that doesn’t make all writing Shakespearean. The works of another playwright that contain similar techniques to Shakespeare wouldn’t be categorised as belonging to the works of Shakespeare because they would still miss the key qualifying characteristic – Shakespeare didn’t write them. QED.

      Social media is not definable in the same way. There is no single defining trait but a mass of shared qualities that, to varying degrees, are shared with all other media as well. You can’t draw a circle around the subset of social media with any accuracy. So to claim it is somehow unique and distinct without a cast iron, black and white definition – that rules out everything that we DON’T treat as social media while encompassing everything we DO – then creates the unhelpful social media exceptionalism I described, which risks actually undermining rather than enhancing our understanding of it and, more importantly, what we’re trying to achieve through it.

      After spending a loooong time researching what I initially thought would be a simple idea (“What is it that makes social media social?”) I can only conclude the mistake would be if we DID “recognize this form of media as something unique and distinct” because there is absolutely no evidence that it is.

      Don’t get me wrong, of course the term is here to stay – even if it can only ever be an abstract and subjective concept. I’ve already written my next two columns and I talk about social media throughout both. But understanding that concept – and the myths propagated by it – helps us to better understand how we should use it and what skills we should value above and beyond the tools that we too often discuss instead.

      • Seph

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Still disagree with you and believe you committed the same error with the way you reference Shakespeare in your reply. I think it’s helpful to restrict the conversation to the medium, rather than muddy things up by bringing in the sensibilities or creative works of individual practitioners. That’s a whole different topic and I can’t get my brain around its relevance to the classification of different forms of media. I’m probably missing something. I guess my point is that I think we’re getting tripped up by labels and taxonomy. Those are just arbitrary things for me and how effective social media (what we refer to as social media) is in articulate ideas or furthering communication is barely or marginally impacted by the label we use to describe it. As you point out, everything we do as humans is a form of social communications. I just don’t have a problem with putting them in different buckets, which, BTW, is another uniquely human thing. Full disclosure, I do admit to being somewhat of a “social” (sorry) media bigot. I know some folks are doing some incredibly creative things with the medium but the vast majority of its contribution seems to be to focus human thought on the trivial and for autocrats to spread propaganda in 144-character increments.

        • Kimota

          I was responding to your analogy of Shakespeare’s output within the broader classification of writing, so it wasn’t my reference. 😀

          I agree – the practitioner doesn’t equal a medium in just the same way that I’m arguing that the tool (or the typewriter) doesn’t equal the medium too. My point is the label of social media is ultimately a pointless (and as you suggest, arbitrary) label. Also, I agree that the label doesn’t change the tool’s effectiveness to further our communications or social activities. That’s sorta my point. That effectiveness is contingent on us and our individual ability to create meaningful social interactions.

          BUT the label means some people see certain such tools as a replacement or enhancement of those individual social skills without being able to clearly define why or how they do so exclusively (otherwise they might identify other more appropriate mediums, formats or methods to generate greater social interaction beyond this vaguely defined subset).

          That is exactly why I think so much of brand social and social content is trivial or unlikely to generate any meaningful outcomes – which ties into your final point. I think we’re actually agreeing here. Social media exceptionalism leads to less effective content because it isn’t held to the same standard or accountability as all other forms of professional communication or social interaction. 🙂

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