Defining Social Media: 2006 – 2010

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
- George Santayana, Life of Reason, Reason in Common Sense, 1905

A few years ago, I was part of a dedicated group of people who worked together to establish Social Media as an official stage in the progression of New Media. An evolution that is well documented and a conversation still continues today.

As referenced in the original Social Media Manifesto published in June 2007, “Monologue has given way to dialog.”

Before Social Media was officially “Social,” several well-known pundits observed the composition of socially-driven ideas and technologies and as such collaborated to help document the landscape and also define and defend Social Media as a legitimate classification for the democratization of publishing and the equalization of influence.

As the category gained momentum, it elicited a series of opposing views and introduced new ideas as the saga unfolded. At the same time, it also opened Pandora’s box and consequently invited the very masses it was designed to empower to define Social Media. Years later, the definition and its history as documented in Wikipedia are truly representative of just how much and how little we know and also agree on its definition and its destiny.

The initial entry was submitted to Wikipedia in July of 2006 and since then there have been hundreds of edits and iterations – most of which are inaccurate and misleading.

In June of 2007, I called for evangelists, experts, and visionaries to collaborate on seeking and documenting a simple and functional definition for Social Media. The goal was to establish a common point of departure from which we could convert uncharted paths into navigational waypoints documented through shared experiences. In many ways, we were, and still are, digital cartographers.  Those actively involved in the ongoing discussions included Doc Searls, Stowe Boyd, Robert Scoble, Jay Rosen, Chris Heuer, Jeremiah Owyang, Shel Israel, Chris Shipley, Deb Schultz, JD Lasica, et al.

After much analysis, hosted conversations, debates, and continued research, a working definition was proposed, and for the most part, continues to guide many practitioners today.

Short Version

Any tool or service that uses the internet to facilitate conversations.

Long Version

Social Media is the democratization of information, transforming people from content readers into publishers. It is the shift from a broadcast mechanism, one-to-many, to a many-to-many model, rooted in conversations between authors, people, and peers.

The discussion continues, inspiring modified definitions that are both brilliant and sometimes inexact. Perhaps uniting around a common definition is implausible.

As Social Media evolves it elicits advocates and experiences as it migrates from the edge of early adoption to the center of prevalence.

But as it pursues ubiquity, Social Media, as a designation, is largely misunderstood and as such, guides many practitioners away from their true opportunity and purpose. Their social compass is unknowingly misaligned and what should point to true North may in fact, displace their center of principles and values.

Indeed, Social Media was embraced by many and still continues to trend upward today as the methodologies and opportunities linked to it persevere, inspiring optimism and igniting ambition along the way.

However, the moment social media was christened, its path towards coalescence was imminent. Experts predict that as soon as 2010 or 2011, Social Media will simply merge into the ongoing development of New Media to set the stage for what’s next. Simply said, Social Media will eventually become “media,” representative of an important chapter in its advancement and transformation.

As I shared with Jennifer Leggio in a recent post on ZDNetthat collected 2010 predictions exploring the potential ubiquity of Social Media:

2010 will be the year that we save us from ourselves in social media…we will stop drinking from the proverbial fire hose and we will lean on filtering and curation to productively guide our experiences and production and consumption behavior and interaction within each network. 2010 will also be the year that leaders and pioneers stop referring to social media as a distinct category of media as they/we usher in an era of new collective and machine intelligence that improves collaboration and interaction – freeing us to focus on the engagement that engenders long term relationships.

It’s not so much what it’s called, but what it represents that counts for everything. This is the democratization of information and the equalization of influence. But, in the end, Social Media is only but a chapter in the evolution of New Media and the pages are slowly turning to the future.

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  • http://www.emergentbydesign.com/ Venessa Miemis

    nice overview, Brian, and thanks for the mention.

    i think we're on the front end of something big, if we can acknowledge this potential power. social media is just human communication gone digital, an evolving process with its own set of nuances and flavors. but it's global and immediate, and that's never been possible before. just connecting online doesn't guarantee real world action, but it lays the foundation. as computing becomes more ubiquitous, and cheaper and easier to get connected, we're going to reach a critical mass – a tipping point.

    i mean, what happens when you give a billion people access to each other via an internet-enabled mobile device? we're going to find out.

    - @venessamiemis
    emergentbydesign.com

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Thank you Venessa. We can't push things forward unless we look back every now and then…

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  • http://windmillnetworking.com/ nealschaffer

    Brian,

    Thank you so much for sharing your history with us as well as this rich definition as to what social media is. I don't need to tell you that what you write is obviously bang on, because you have helped define the way in which we understand social media, but there are so many people who talk a lot about social media yet do not understand it in the same depth nor its historical roots. I believe this blog post of yours should be mandatory reading for everyone involved in social media!

    What I especially like about your definition is the “social” part of social media. I find too many people simply look at social media as a new broadcast medium and forget that it is really centered around people like you and me who are creating, sharing, and talking about content. We cannot be controlled, and neither can social media!

    As for social media evolving into New Media, this is without doubt. What will take shape is still years away, but I believe we are already starting to see glimpses of this in the way we use our cell phones and location-based services. When social media makes its way to the Living Room and the TV set, you'll know it's developed into something truly new…

    @NealSchaffer
    http://windmillnetworking.com

  • http://www.ivanwalsh.com Ivan Walsh

    Hello Brian,

    I think there needs to be an 'acid test' at some point for SM to gain the traction that it promises.

    What I mean is that Radio was tested by TV, which was tested by Cable, which was tested by the Web etc.

    Once this plays out, SM will morph into media (esp with web+video).

    But, remember the world is not California. It will take 5-10 years for this to be realized world-wide.

    Ivan

  • alejandrorecio

    It seem that social media has shortened the degrees of separation between every person in the world, becoming a source of real time information for every country. It has taken away the monopolization of the news from the networks and giving it back to the people. But like everything in life there are ways they can be manipulated and used to the advantage of different powers. Now that it has become part of the mainstream it has transformed into a whole different industry of communication, now is the time to start filtering what is productive and what isn’t.

  • http://interchanges.com/ Nelson Bruton

    Great post Brian. I love the excerpt you pulled from Jennifer Leggio.

    I would also like to venture so far as to say that the “idea” or “concept” of social media began to emerge back in April of 1999 when the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto were written. While the entire list of 95 are all quite prophetic, here is a short list of my favorites:

    1. Markets are conversations.

    9. These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.

    19. Companies can now communicate with their markets directly. If they blow it, it could be their last chance.

    20. Companies need to realize their markets are often laughing. At them.

    25. Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.

    74. We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.

    84. We know some people from your company. They're pretty cool online. Do you have any more like that you're hiding? Can they come out and play?

    To read all 95, visit cluetrain.com

    The website is a “read only” site and it appears just as it did in April of 1999.

    Best Regards,

    Nelson Bruton
    interchanges.com

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  • http://AltaeeBlog.com Mohammed Al-Taee

    You said: Social Media is: “Any tool or service that uses the internet to facilitate conversations.” so most of the tools that we are using today are Social Media tools, right?

    What I'm doing now (posting a question on your blog), is that a Social Networking? Whats the difference?

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  • http://www.MarkMcCulloch.com Mark McCulloch Success Coach

    While surfing the internet today I decided to visit your blog once again and I have to admit I am very happy to have done so because this information is of amazing quality just like your other posts also.

    Mark McCulloch

  • http://www.socialtality.com dmattcarter

    Thanks for stepping back from the chaos to provide a 30,000 ft view. We should all do that periodically.
    One sentence gave me pause: “This is the democratization of information and the equalization of influence.”

    Indeed, the wide adoption of Social Media does engender the democratization of information but, does it really equalize influence or does it merely shift power from it's traditional center. I'm currently working with a start-up called SOCIALtality (http://www.socialtality.com), and as we worked to select enterprise-level Alpha-testers, we've had the chance to talk with many large organization and gauge the effect that the rise of Social Media has had on them.

    Our contact at IBM felt that the recognition of the importance of Social Media, has taken power from the entrenched elite (individuals whose experience spans decades) and shifted it to the middle of the organization–A place of fairly recently hired people who've become adept at social media on a personal level and now possess a much sought-after skillset.

    Social Media has empowered a new class of person. Influence is now something that can be achieved through either actual merit/knowledge/hardwork or simple technical adeptness, rather than years of leadership. Good or bad? I guess we'll see.

  • http://humanvoice.wordpress.com tomob

    Hi Brian:

    Another in a long series of thoughtful and helpful posts.

    I have to than @nelson below for his explicit reference back to the Cluetrain Manifesto – as I think it was the first major articulation of the priciples that animate SM today.

    Reading the post and looking again at the Social Marketing Compass I was struck by a lightning bolt. The reason brands struggle with social marketing is because they think they are at the center of the SM phenomena. They are not.

    SM (as called out by @venessa) is just people connecting with each other. The web (& associated tools) let us do it across the boundaries of time and space, with an addressable market of billions. But the behavior is old school, core human behavior. We want to find and connect with people who share our passions.

    So the problem for brands and SM Marketing is this. We talk to each other about things we care about. Mostly that is not brands. Brands are involved in helping us get what we want, but they are just means to an end. So the SM conversation is not about brands (primarily) or for brands (at all).

    What if you re-did the Social Marketing Compass with people in the middle instead of brands in the middle. Brands are not the Raison d'être of social media.

    TO'B

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  • http://dr1665.com DR1665

    How sad is it that we're having to devote so much time and energy to defining social media?

    It's conversation, talk, communication. That's all it is.

    Am I a believer? Absolutely. I just find it hilarious most days to see so much discussion about what is essentially conversation. I suspect that anyone looking to do well in social media would do well to take a basic course in conversation skills and then start having conversations online. That's really all there is to it. Anything else is just buzz words and old world marketing gimmicks.

    I am a person. I am not a metric to be counted. Treat me like a person – like an equal – and I will let you (and the organization you represent) into my world. You wanted to plaster my web experience with banner and sidebar ads that flash or look like games and search utilities? I've got ways to block them. If you want to get involved in social media to create online communities for your own benefit, without genuinely having a conversation with me, I'll find ways to block you in this realm too.

    It's just so damn ironic. Digital conversation is really the future. There is unlimited potential for everyone in the world to collaborate, to grow, and to benefit. Anyone smarter than a rock can see that. Yet here we are, trying desperately to define and sell the idea of actually reaching out and talking to people.

    As if conversation is such a radical idea all of the sudden!

    Anyway. Good read today. Got me subscribing. Cheers.

    • cyuskoff

      I'm also tired of defining social media and defending it. I think by now, most have something in place and looking for ways to strengthen their strategies. But this post brought back some memories: I'll never forget in 2006 when I tried to convince my company to get on Myspace and how everyone thought I was crazy. Then, an LA Times article dropped on how companies were using Myspace to spread the word, and then we jumped onboard. So my point is, thanks for getting together with such influencers to discuss this revolution. What you have to say is very influential to many businesses.

  • http://oldmedianewtricks.com Daniel_Honigman

    2010 will be the year that we save us from ourselves in social media…we will stop drinking from the proverbial fire hose and we will lean on filtering and curation to productively guide our experiences and production and consumption behavior and interaction within each network.

    I think Jennifer's right on. Nice summary, Brian.

    • freebeezndealz

      Agree as well.

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Thanks Daniel…just for the record, that was my prediction for 2010 in Jennifer Leggio's post. :)

ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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