Defining the Amorphous

What is social media?

Social Media Conversation Prism

Conversation Prism by Brian Solis and Jesse Thomas

Social media seems to defy definition, as it is evolving even today. As cited by Brian Solis, in his article “Defining Social Media:2006-2010”, we just can’t seem to agree and stick with a single definition. Even the first sentence of the Wikipedia article for social media does not start with a definition, but a statement of things that currently fall under the category, “Social media includes web- and mobile-based technologies which are used to turn communication into interactive dialogue among organizations, communities, and individuals.” The next sentence is the reiteration of what two people actually were able to agree upon for a definition, which seems oddly specific to 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” (Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein in “Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media”).

Solis goes on to relate how many times the social media’s Wikipedia article has been edited (and not always for the better), I checked when I accessed the article, and it noted that it had last been edited Sept 9th. “Years later, the definition [of social media] 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.”
With all this debate going on about what social media is, I’ve decided to do less in way of forming my own definition and more of comparing it to another social phenom. Back in the days of silent film—1894 to 1929 (as defined by Wikipedia)—sound film, or “talkies”, were an upstart new fangled idea, annoying and thought to be a fad by some. But in 1927, the box office hit “The Jazz Singer” landed and sound film soon became the standard. In 2012, we do not use the term, “talkies”. Many of us have never heard of the term, but then it is a term that is no longer needed. In our day, there are no silent films, except for in academic or nostalgic circles, therefore, the need for a separate term for what we know as the norm, sound film, is not necessary.

May I be so bold as to say that social media is the “talkie” category of our day? Media has existed for a long time, but social media is changing it dramatically. But then it is distinct and different to us as the generation in which it was conceived. We have a special name for it, but one day I wonder if it may regarded as something not so separate.

The Social Media Manifesto cover art

The Social Media Manifesto by Brian Solis

I was intrigued by the mention of “The Social Media Manifesto” in Solis’ first article, so I traveled over to glean some information. It seemed to help define social media without really stating it. It relayed facts about the new trends you see social media bringing about but cannot really see until someone else states it. So much about social media we cannot see without heavy focus, you cannot see the forest for the trees, if you will. Social media is where, “monologue has given way to dialog.” It puts “the “public” back in Public Relations”. Media channels and power have been turned upside down, “Social media has created a new layer of influencers. It is the understanding of the role people play in the process of not only reading and disseminating information, but also how they in turn, share and also create content for others to participate. This, and only this, allows us to truly grasp the future of communications.”

As the article, “The People Formerly Known as the Audience” posted by Jay Rosen touched on, social media is in a significant amount about control.  He quoted Dave Winer, one of the founders of blogging, said it back in 1994: “Once the users take control, they never give it back.” Consumers are tired of being viewed as a commodity that media controls or can control. It is quotes like the following that have us so disenchanted, “We already own the eyeballs on the television screen. We want to make sure we own the eyeballs on the computer screen.” (Ann Kirschner, vice president for programming and media development for the National Football League.) This is just one example of how much power the media system has felt it held in the past (that quote was from 1995), and the rise of social media seems to be freeing the public at least to an extent. “We’re not on your clock any more,” Tom Curley, CEO of the Associated Press, has explained, “The users are deciding what the point of their engagement will be — what application, what device, what time, what place.”

I think the new media dynamic to the public is best described in this ‘eyeball’ section of Rosen’s article, “You don’t own the eyeballs. You don’t own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don’t control production on the new platform, which isn’t one-way. There’s a new balance of power between you and us.” In news media there are two groupings, from predominantly professional fields (TV, radio, newsprint) to fields with more amateur contributions (blogs, podcasts, etc), that seem to be blurring as time moves forward.

Rosen asserts that general media has not fallen to social media. While analog news media (TV, radio, newsprint) has felt a significant drop because of online news sources (which often do offer interaction, so therefore seem borderline social media), it is not social media that has actually taken so much traffic from them. And then at the same time, one-way media like TV, movies, plays, radio and books have definitely not been quit by society.  Professional entertainment media is not something that would seem to ever dissolve in the wake of new innovations in this Information Age.

So all this being said, what do I believe about the future of social media?  This amorphous being? Another thought from Rosen’s article, “If all would speak who shall be left to listen?” Will social media with its perpetual vice of arrogance do itself in?  Like a Twitter feed that moves so fast that the user finds themselves complacent with little desire to keep up, will new world of self-publishing ultimately invalidate itself?  Or has it already?

I tend to think that social media will ‘mature’.  As a new generation is born into a world where social media is a constant, a norm, I believe future generations will build on our wild frontier and tame the land and make better use of it than we have.

What will we call social media one day?  Will it be absorbed back into the term “media”, as “talkies” were absorbed back into the terms “movies” and “films”?  Or will it always remain a distinct entity with it’s own terminology?

I wonder if there will become an accepted distinction of professional media and amateur or lay media, or will these lines blur into each other so that distinction is no longer possible?

What is social media?  All real attempts at a definition aside, social media is the current high point of the Information Age.  Or so it appears from our perspective in the here and now.


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