What Is Social Media?

Recently, after having launched my business, starting to blog, and giving a few presentations, I’m starting to get a recurring question from friends, prospective clients, and various listeners.

That question is, “What is social media?”

What’s interesting about this question when I talk with folks about it is where it goes when I start peeling back the layers of the onion.  Everyone gets Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.  It’s what to do with them and what does it all mean that seems to be at the root of that question.

And, it’s a good question since it’s very relevant to what’s happening because of the social media phenomena.  Social media is very different from what has come before.  It’s not a fad. It’s grown legs, and very sturdy legs at that, out of changes in process, technology, and organizations that have been underway for more than a generation.

I lay out these changes in roughly historical order:

  1. A group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content
  2. Social media is the social interaction among people in which they create, share or exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks
  3. Social media depend on mobile and web-based technologies to create highly interactive platforms through which individuals and communities share, co-create, discuss, and modify user-generated content

So, first we have the tools followed by people using them and then a sort of Pre-Cambrian explosion of life created by mobile technology.  (What hath Steve Jobs wrought?  Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

I’d like to start with that concept of “user-generated content.”  Today, we all publish, we all create.  Whether it’s the written word, graphics, or music, we’re all doing it with increasing ease of use coming from the latest tool or app.  The tools are wikis, blogs, microblogs, and social networking sites to name but a few.  Virtual game worlds like World of Warcraft and virtual social worlds like Second Life are even included in the broadest definitions.  (Anyone remember when major brands like Toyota, IBM, and Gap used to be in Second Life?)  All these tools permit users to create content which can then be shared.

Next, let’s look at that idea of “social interaction.”  I know many people who will go out and sign up for tool like Twitter.  They’ll send out the socially required “Hello world!” first tweet, say they’re going to lunch, tweet what they had for lunch, and then stop dead.  They’ve run out of content.  Others don’t have that problem.  They understand that the medium is the message.  Adding friends, joining groups, participating in the discussion around them, adding their own content, and sharing the content of others is what they’re all about.  It’s all done freely and openly.  Some become subject matter experts (SMEs) or influencers in their disciplines.  They’re collaborating with others.

Finally, because of “mobile and web-based technologies”, we’re no longer tethered to a desktop somewhere in an office or at home.  Even the versatile and ubiquitous laptop is giving way to tablets and smartphones.  With WiFi freely available practically everywhere (Singapore recently made free WiFi available for all of its citizens within its borders.  Yes, I know, Singapore’s a small country!  But, we’re talking first principles here.)  just about anyone can access content and collaborate anywhere.  Communities have gone both virtual and viral.

Some may ask if social media is really new or just different.

The argument for just different is that this is just the natural extension of trends that have been underway for some time.  The argument for new is this change is transformational and not incremental.

I side with those who say this change is really new.  I say this because I see barriers falling all around me.  My online communities contain people from all over the world.  Some I’ve never met face to face but I feel I know them as well as I do people whom I grew up since childhood.  This kind of change is not incremental, it’s truly transformational.

Excuse me for using that old, overused saw, “The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.”  But, it applies to social media. None of its individual components or sub-components would add up to the change that we’re seeing today from all the components together.

So, let me recap for a moment.

To answer the question, “What is social media?”  I respond with my list of the 3 C’s.  (I’m a consultant, I always have lists!)

The 3 C’s of social media are:

  • Content
  • Collaboration
  • Community

The content that we create and share through collaboration with our community is what social media is all about.

We may use different tools in different ways with different people but we’re all accomplishing the same goals.

I hope you have found this helpful.  To me, social media is a fundamental change in how we relate to one another, do business together, and how we even learn.  Going forward I’ll be exploring some of the topics and issues related to social media.  Feel free to send me any subjects that you think would be worthwhile for me to blog about and share with my followers.

For an excellent overview of social media check out its Wikipedia entry.  For an overview of setting up a social media program see my blog post on the subject.

In the meantime, thank you for following and reading my blog!

I look forward to any and all comments that you may have.  I will reply to any comments made to this blog post as promptly as I can.


I work with social media for a living and if I can be of any assistance to either you or your organization, please feel free to call on me.  Our initial discussion will be of no charge to you.

I can also be reached at conpsweeney@someddi.com.

My Twitter handle is @conpsweeney.

Stay well!

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