What Does Social Media Mean?

by Chris Kenton on January 31, 2007

I’ve just published a post on the meaning and sigificance of social media at the Unica blog. Without rehashing the whole discussion here, I’ll post one paragraph that to me cuts to the core of all the hand wringing over the implications of social media.

I know no one does this anymore, but it’s interesting at this point to
crack open a dictionary. It turns out that media, the plural of medium,
means “that which lies between things”. It’s “a substance through which
a force acts or an effect is transmitted”. When we talk about media
communications, the substance is typically newspapers, television,
magazines, radio, books and now of course the Internet. In business,
media might also include brochures, direct mail, web sites, press
releases, presentations and demos. The force or effect that is
transmitted is information—information about people, events and ideas.
But the kicker is that media lies between “things”, and transmits a
force and effect.  The “things” have traditionally been the public on
one side, and the owners of media on the other. The force and effect
transmitted is not just information, but the shaping of knowledge. And
because traditional media—created with expensive and monolithic
tools—is controlled by its owners, the shaping of knowledge by
transmitting selected information has been very one-sided. And that’s
where the full contextual meaning of “social media” starts drawing its
significance.

It’s amazing to me how much value you can find hidden in the meanings of words. I’m sure no one sat around searching through the dictionary trying to come up with just the right definitions to wrap around blogs and wikis. A label like "social media" in one sense is just the victor in a natural selection of terms that also at one time included "user generated content". It fits, it makes sense. But at the same time, once that label sticks, and you dig down into what those words signifies, it’s really pretty damn fascinating to see the deeper layers that just pop right out. I mean, User Generated Content? How far can you dig with that? It’s almost as if the unstructured process that led to the rise of the term Social Media somehow accounted for the depth of meaning of the term.         

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