What is social media, and is social media actually media in the traditional sense of the word? This is the question Jeffrey and Brian Eisenberg take on and try to decisively answer at their marketing firm’s company blog.
They say it is disengenuous to call any of the various things we in the punditry business refer to as types of New Media as any type of media, since the fundamental nature of what we call New Media is communicative, and older forms of media are simply places for content to be surrounded by advertisements.
From Brian’s post:
“The biggest problem I have with the term “social media” is that it isn’t media in the traditional sense. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and all the others I don’t have the word count to mention aren’t media; they are platforms for interaction and networking. All the traditional media — print, broadcast, search, and so on — provide platforms for delivery of ads near and around relevant content. Social media are platforms for interaction and relationships, not content and ads.”
“I think when we call it ‘consumer-generated media,’ we’re being predatory,” he said. “Who said this is media? Media is something you can buy and sell. Media contains inventory. Media contains blank spaces. Consumers weren’t trying to generate media. They were trying to talk to somebody. So it just seems a bit arrogant. … We hijack their own conversations, their own thoughts and feelings, and try to monetize it.”
“You can do really amazing things. But I’m not so sure I want to be targeted like that. … I don’t think everything every consumer says to someone else and writes down is somehow monetizable by the media industry.”
It makes sense in terms of the viewpoint he’s trying to get across here to think of it as a different type of media. Certainly, a recurring sentiment I hear from commenters and pundits around the blogosphere is the distaste for the term “social media” as something overly broad.
That doesn’t mean, though, that the term doesn’t make sense. As I commonly say, when the blogosphere loses it’s way in its quest for proper semantics, it helps to have a sense of history, both of the term and in this case, the media business as well.
What is Media?
A quick look at the definitions of media probably won’t clear things up, as there are more definitions to the term than I expected. When you look at it in context of the terms “new media”, “old media” and “social media”, there’s some implied context. The media part of that doesn’t refer to the message, but the methods by which that message is conveyed.
This means the newspaper, the television, and the radio when you’re talking about Old Media. Moving forward into New Media, it starts with blogs and podcasts and authorship-centric tools like Twitter, YouTube and the other variants of online video and microblogging distribution.
Social Media is a term that encompasses the platforms of New Media, but also implies the inclusion of systems like FriendFeed, Facebook, and other things typically thought of as social networking. The idea is that they are media platforms with social components and public communication channels.
These are how I use the terms, and how I see others use these terms. I’m not claiming that these are the only proper usages of these terms, but if you use these for your guidelines, you probably won’t make any embarassing faux pas at the next MashMeet.
In Media, Is the Product the Message or the Audience?
The Eisenbergs were right on one thing: the term social media means something different to the participants and the producers than it does to the marketing people.
It’s the job of those in marketing to see dollar signs everywhere. That Old Media top to bottom thinks of their industry as nothing but giant dollar signs should be obvious to savvy media observers. Liberals love to criticize Fox News Channel as being a mouthpiece for Republicans (as conservatives love to criticize the rest of the media for being mouthpieces for Democrats), but it’s clear that a lot of that media bias which exists only exists for their financial incentive.
When it comes to Old Media, the news itself isn’t the product for sale. The product for sale is the audience. The news process is just something that exists to consolidate that audience into a package. That’s why, despite the integrity that journalists of all stripe often have, the editorial direction of an organization can seem guided by their purse-strings (or at least something other than their veracity).
In New Media’s humble beginnings, money wasn’t really involved in the equation. Bloggers and podcasters imagined that at some point in the future, there would be a time when their art form would be widely considered to older forms of media, and that there would probably be great financial incentive somewhere for them to make it a full time profession. As someone who was a participant in that culture I can attest that the bulk of blogging was done for, as Kevin Rose puts it, the love of it.
Does That Mean It’s Immoral to Monetize Social Media?
Perhaps, if you ask Dave Winer. Obviously, I disagree.
Obviously, the top tier of blogging and podcasting has moved up a notch and is edging back towards the business underpinnings we see in traditional media structures, but tools and platforms that fall into the category we define here as “social media” have taken up the slack. Users at Digg and FriendFeed and YouTube all routinely create mountains of content with little to no financial incentive at all for most users.
If you’re a marketer or entreprenuer, it’s important (I think) to approach aggregating and monetizing social media with at least a little bit of appreciation for its roots and culture. Whether it’s the incidental tweet or a masterpiece uploaded to Flickr, a little bit of the user’s soul and identity goes into creating that content.
I’ve exposed a wide variety of innovative advertising methods here during my tenure at Mashable, and each one has had at least one or two commenters that object to their creations being held up as purely instruments to make money with. I don’t think that the majority of ‘Net users are pinko, anti-capitalistic, commie bastards, but when they put a bit of themselves out there only to see others take the lion’s share of what money, they feel a bit abused.
It isn’t that the user and content creator (no matter the scale) doesn’t want to be targeted and marketed to – it’s that they don’t want to feel like a mule for someone else’s message. They don’t want to have their work be a trojan horse for someone else’s ideas, be they marketing or ideological in nature.
When designing systems and advertising schemes: that, I believe, is the most important factor to keep in mind.
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Just What is Social Media, Exactly?