Summary: The two aspects of social media that I’d like to view as qualitative departures from the past are: (1) ‘The Dilution of Channels’ in that online conversations happen all over the place; and (2) ‘The Wisdom of the Crowd’, social
software helping people navigate their way through online
[ADDITION, October 26, 2007: I’ve added one more charasteristic to the social media mix: (3) ‘Participation’. See also the addition towards the end of this post]
My local professional communicators’ association wishes to pick my brain on "social media". So it’s about time I captured the concept in writing.
The media have, of course, always been "social". Any form of human communication (where there are messages sent by senders and processed by receivers) is social. The Internet is a disruptive technology that accelerates certain properties of everything social, in particular human communication, including what we call "the media". In other words, to some extent "social media" is a pleonasm.
Also the Internet has always been a social space.
For homework I Googled the term. The Wikipedia entry, Robert Scoble‘s entry, and some other references I found seem to position "social media" mainly as something that has more "capacity" than "traditional media": online means faster and more immediate, easier to interact with, easy to copy and share, unlimited space…
Quantitative or qualitative?
Are we really talking about quantitative differences only? Or should we make some qualitative distinctions as well?
One of the countless contributions to the conversation about "what is social media" comes from Stowe Boyd. His "fundamental distinctions" resonate with me (although I feel that nrs. 1 and 2 are more or less the same):
1. Social Media Is Not A Broadcast Medium;
2. Social Media Is Many-To-Many;
3. Social Media Is Open;
4. Social Media Is Disruptive.
To phrase it in the negative, to me, the adjective "social" in social
media points at what I would like to call ‘The Dilution of Channels’.
Channels to be interpreted as media titles.
I’m afraid it really comes back to the good ol’ Cluetrain, again: markets are conversations; the Net is one big global set of conversations.
The distinction between publisher and audience is diluting. And with
it, the authority of channels. It’s becoming more about what you say
than who you are. (Or at least that’s what we, techno-utopists, are hoping, isn’t it: a democratization of public discourse?)
A plethora of conversations
I was going to call this ‘The End of Channels’, however I don’t want to
suggest that channels will cease to exist. On the contrary, there may
be a billion of them already. My point is that channels no longer "own"
their audiences or the conversations they host. They merely contribute
content to a plethora of conversations, in which sets of participants
talk with each other.
A published article is no longer the start of a discussion, nor does
its channel any longer host that discussion. A published article
contributes to The Conversation around the topic at hand (which in most
cases was already taking place in various shapes elsewhere) and which
can unfold in a thousand different directions in conversation threads
across the Web and over time.
Social means that people engage with each other, in conversation. No
longer does a reader necessarily respond to The Editor by way of
writing a letter (without expecting an answer), but "readers" (if we
should still call ourselves that – perhaps "participants" is a better
term?) also engage in conversation with *each other*. That is what makes the media "social" in Internet speak.
Everyone can engage in and contribute to the conversation: the person
who initiated a conversation thread can be a journalist, a blogger,
someone editing a wiki page, uploading a video, posting to an email
distribution list, an online forum, even a chat room for all I care.
Everyone involved can help shape the conversation by (1) improving the
factual accuracy of previously contributed content, and (2) adding on information and insights.
Social media are increasingly complemented by social applications or social software. Think e.g. social bookmarking, recommendation and rating
systems, collaborative filtering, and wikis. These services tap into the collective online behavior of people who engage in certain conversations, and assist these participants in searching, discovering and filtering relevant information.
In summary, I’d say that many distinguishing characteristics of what we call social media are indeed quantitative. They have to do with capacity, immediacy, speed of access and distribution of media content.
The two aspects of social media that I’d like to view as qualitative departures from the past are:
- ‘The Dilution of Channels’ in that online conversations happen all over the place; and
- ‘The Wisdom of the Crowd’, social software helping people navigate their way through online
What did I miss?
[ADDITION, October 26, 2007: There is a third qualitative aspect that I’d like to add, which distinguishes "social media" from "traditional media" (or should we use a more precise term to describe the latter, e.g. "pre-Web2.0 media"?).
(3) Social media are more participatory, collaborative, co-creational, open-ended, annotational, conversational than traditional media. Stephen Baker and Heather Green of BusinessWeek were spot-on when they wrote how ‘Blogs Will Change Your Business‘:
"Think of the way we produce stories here [at BusinessWeek – JS]. It’s
a closed process. We come up with an idea. We read, we discuss
in-house, and then we interview all sorts of experts and take their
pictures. We urge them not to spill the beans about what we’re working
on. It’s a secret."
Content of social media is often co-created. Just like, as its inventor Tim Berners-Lee is said to have put it, "the Web will always be a little broken", so too will social media, at the content unit level, always be a little broken, or open-ended.
That open-endedness is the part of the nature of conversation. When the ends are closing, it means that the conversation is closing (or drying up). Either we’ve reached consensus, or all parties agree to disagree, and/or people have simply lost interest.
The degree to which co-creation happens varies, depending on the amount of control that the originator may want to keep, and depending on the tools used – for example, a wiki page which can be edited by any passer-by may allow for a larger degree of co-creation than a blog or a podcast, where readers and listeners may have a feedback channel in the shape of comment submission, but may not be able to edit the original content.]
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