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A Definitive (lol) Definition and History of Social Media


Q. If a tree falls at a school social and the newspaper fails to report it, but it gets mentioned on MySpace, has the media landscape officially changed?

A. Lol.

Defining Social Media

‘Social media’ is a phrase used to describe a group of channels and networks people use to communicate and interact with each other using the Internet. Like traditional, industralised mass media channels (such as TV, Radio, Newspapers and Magazines), social media channels are designed to deliver messages to large audience. A number of popular social media channels (such as MySpace and Yahoo! Answers) are owned by the same corporations as their traditional counterparts, but unlike traditional publishing and broadcasting organisations, the content production and editing of social media is done by members of the public and management of the process is not centralised.

Obviously it’s hard to pin down a definitive definition of social media for longer than half an hour because the lines between ‘social’ and ‘traditional’ media keep blurring. Channels like Twitter and Flickr are important first-hand historical sources (read: news). The numbers of people consuming paper newspapers, terrestrial radio and free-to-air TV are rapidly falling and the effectiveness of broadcasting an advertising message ‘at’ someone via one of those traditional channels is being diminished because they can easily find out everything they want to know about your product (and more) from a social media channel. The days of professional information gatekeeping are almost over, and consumers don’t need to rely on professional critics any more for information or advice.

Some commentators (and good friends of mine) have argued that soon the Internet will be so pervasive that it will be the only platform on which content is produced, and that the web has always been social, so a ‘social media’ is a tautology. It’s true to some extent, but it’s hard to envisage a time when no-one will get paid, or make money from broadcasting content intended for passive consumption. One thing is for certain, the plethora of information and opinions available about virtually every product on the market has forever changed the messages in our advertising, and the way we communicate them.

Examples of Social Media Channels

Discussion Channels

  • Forums
  • Comment and Review Sections on Traditional websites
  • Discussion Groups

Entertainment Channels

  • Personal Content Distribution Platforms (Blogs, Podcasts)
  • Video Broadcasting (YouTube, Vimeo)
  • Public Image Sharing (Flickr, Photobucket)
  • File Sharing

Social Networks

  • Friendship networks (Facebook, MySpace, MeetUp, Second Life)
  • Professional networks (LinkedIn)

News and Reference Channels

  • Wikipedia
  • Delicious
  • Reddit
  • Digg

A Brief History of Social Media

People have been interacting with each other via offline media channels for years. Cave walls provided collaborative story telling channels in prehistoric time, letters to the editor have been popular for hundreds of years, talkback radio continues to rate well and there’s hardly a show on TV these days that doesn’t involve some sort of an audience poll. However, most of what you read in a newspaper, watch on TV or listen to on the radio isn’t interactive or community-based at all, the content is designed for passive consumption – in fact, most traditional media is decidedly anti-social.

The Internet is slightly different because it was invented as a peer-to-peer communication channel for scientists. Usenet groups and the discussion groups that followed were created for professional interaction, but once corporations started getting their hands on the World Wide Web, they treated it as another one-way communication channel which allowed them to broadcast messages ‘at’ people, just like TV. People didn’t like being broadcast ‘at’ via a medium that was designed to involve them, so companies and savvy web developers got their shit together in 2004, and popularised Web 2.0, a term which meant that if you didn’t have a blog or a tag-cloud on your website, you weren’t cool.

Around the same time, MySpace, Facebook, Wikipedia, Blogs, comments sections at the end of articles, and various other examples of people using the web as a social medium, as opposed to a broadcast medium, were starting to get the attention of marketers. Amazon had been allowing customers to post product reviews on their site for years and Google had an archive of online discussion dating back 20 years, but most marketers had so far failed to see how they could pervert this social interaction in a way that would produce quantifiable results which could be graphed in Excel and presented at the next management meeting.

However, once credible financial newspapers started reporting that online social networks like MySpace had ten gazillion billion visitors a month and Rupert Murdoch was buying them, senior managers, ad agencies and marketers decided they’d better start paying attention because if all the kids were hanging out in the one place, it would a hell of a lot easier to broadcast messages at them again. Some savvy marketers who hadn’t used the ‘word of mouth’ sections of their textbooks to make paper airplanes had also figured out that if you could get all the cool kids with the most MySpace friends to talk about your products, you would probably sell more of them. Kind of like celebrity endorsements, but much cheaper and, sadly, without the launch parties.

In fact, by the year 2007, just about every marketer, account manager and brand manager in the world was talking about these new opportunities and senior managers started asking what they were doing about it. It was clear then, that this new media channel needed to be included in Excel graphs, and if it was going to be included in Excel graphs, it needed a name. It wasn’t traditional media, that was for sure. And it wasn’t online media, because that was, like, banner ads and stuff on newspaper websites. This was, like, media made from social networking websites… And so the phrase ‘social media’ was coined.

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2 Responses to A Definitive (lol) Definition and History of Social Media

  1. Nathan Bush says:

    lol (and I never use that term)

  2. ‘…but it’s hard to envisage a time when no-one will get paid, or make money from broadcasting content intended for passive consumption’ – this post in the Long Tail blog is an interesting read in regards to how content makers are going to make a living, or not:

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