A dozen years ago or so, a colleague told me about a meeting to discuss the construction of a client's first intranet. The top communicator and IT manager were answering questions from my friend's checklist. He came to the question, "Who will be responsible for content?"
"I will," they both replied in unison.
Each was shocked that the other had the temerity to suggest his department should manage intranet content. The disagreement became an argument and then deteriorating into a shouting match. My friend settled them both down, then asked the IT manager what he meant by "content." It turned out he viewed content through the lens of formats; he believed IT should determine the formats and delivery mechanisms of content. The communicator, of course, didn't care much about file formats. He saw content as the substance of the message.
Once they realized they were talking about two different things, all was well.
I am reminded of my friend's story because of the renewal of a meme started a couple years back by Steve Rubel. This time it's Converseon CEO Rob Key, writing for iMedia Connection, who suggests that the time has come to drop "social" from "social media."
In those early days, we were delighted when people started to use the term "social media." The term quickly gained acceptance among the community and has since then, of course, gained pervasiveness beyond the expectations the relatively small "social media" community had in those early days. There are more than 160 million pages indexed in Google referring to the term "social media."
Now, almost a decade later, we look forward to the day we all stop using it since its very use is stunting...it's time to kill it off. We certainly can't end the use tomorrow, but we can work together with those in the industry to begin to evolve the language surrounding it to better reflect its power. We are rapidly moving to a post-social media world, where all media is social, and brands and businesses recognize its power to influence the entire enterprise.
The part that troubles me is the notion that "all media is social." I disagree, and said so in a comment that led to a robust response from Molander & Associates CEO Jeff Molander. As we went back and forth on the topic, it occurred to me that we were talking at cross purposes. Rob and Jeff, I believe, see "social media" as the an ecosystem that allows for engagement with any media. Even though there are no social tools on the Bank of America website (for instance), anything on that site is subject to discussion in any number of places. I can Digg a page of the site, save it to Delicious, blog about it, mention it on Twitter, post something to Facebook, the list goes on.
There's nothing new about this, of course. Long before anyone ever envisioned a computer, people could talk about media. The publication of "Pride and Prejudice" probably led to social conversations in book clubs, for example. I can even picture a couple cavemen grunting to each other about a painting on a cave wall.
Social media has made it easier for the engagement to be more inclusive. Digital media is even more prone to this social interaction thanks to the ease with which a hyperlink can be added and nuggets of content copied and pasted.
The problem is that not everybody agrees with this definition of "social media." Media are channels through which content is delivered. Social media, as I define it, are those channels and tools that actually enable interaction among people. Under this definition, the Bank of America site is not social, but Twitterâ€"the tool I might use to talk about the bank siteâ€"is.
Wikipedia cites this definition of social media, which works for me: "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."
I'm not suggesting that my definition is right and others are wrong, only that the conflicting definitions lead to confusion and disagreement. While attending the sixth annual New Communications Forum this past week, I asked several practitioners who are experienced in social mediaâ€"many of them Fellows in the Society for New Communication Researchâ€"two simple questions:
- Are all (digital) media social?
- Is there still value in differentiating between social and other media?
The different approaches to their answers suggests that fewâ€"even among expertsâ€"have agreed on a definition:
From my perspective, we do still need to differentiate for several reasons:
I'm a believer in applying strategic planning to any communications, including those that leverage social channels. Clear goals, comprehensive strategies and measurable objectives are vital. But getting those phases of strategic planning right won't count for much if the tactical implementation of the plan sucks. We still need to develop expertise in the use of social tools. Lumping them together as just "media" won't help those with background in traditional media make the best use of social tools.
Measurement is different
We're starting to see some agreement about the means by which social media can be measured. (If you haven't listened to Katie Paine's talk at Newcomm on social media measurement, don't miss it; it was excellent. It's also worth reading The Altimeter Group's white paper on the subject.) But if we don't diffrerentiate between social media and other media, it'll be too easy to apply analytics that work fine for one-way media to the social world, which does require an entirely different approach.
Molander, in one of his responses to me, says, "I measure it this way: How many actions (sales, leads) did my social media investment produce." There are problems with this approach. Not all social efforts are designed to generate a sale or lead, and even if they are, how do you know the social effort directly resulted in the sale? That is, how do you tease the sales that were produced by the social effort from all the other marketing and advertising channels a company is employing? That's why it's so importantâ€"as Paine and Altimeter agreeâ€"to establish Key Performance Indicators for each tyhpe of business objective your social efforts are designed to achieve, to use the right analytics tools, and to apply the right formulae.
It's still new
Like some of those commenting in the video above, I still encounter people who aren't clear on the social concept. The very existence of the term is a catalyst for a lot of people who need to know more about it to learn.
King Canute failed
There was a movement a few years back to change the word "podcasting," despite the fact that it had been named Oxford English Dictionary's word of the year and that its use was widespread. The mediaâ€"both mainstream and socialâ€"have embraced the label. A search of Amazon turns up over 800 titles that use the phrase. Like King Canute of legend, we can stand at the shore and try to hold back the tide. I doubt we'll have more luck than he did.
Imagine walking into a bookstore and finding no sections. All books were simply lined up in rows, alphabetical by author. The ability to go straight to the mystery, current events, biography and fiction sections make it easier to find what you're looking for. It still makes sense to me to categorize media: news, broadcast, social, and so on.
In short, as long as we're still learning to use the tools, making the distinction between social and other media produces more benefits than problems.
Whether you agree most liikely depends on your definitions.
So...do you agree?