Is “Social Media” Hurting Social Media?

Is the term “social media” hurting strategic communicators in the digital space?

Before you tell me I’m crazy, stop and think for a second.

Plenty of people have wondered about the term before (Google “social media term” and you’ll find a 2007 post from Jeremiah Owyang on the topic) but I’m thinking of this from a slightly different angle.

Is the term “social media” leading clients to take the wrong approach to their online activities?

How many companies have you encountered taking a scorched earth approach to their social media activities? I’m not naive enough to think that two words would lead us to a silver bullet situation, but do these two current words adversely affect some companies’ approaches to online interaction? I’m not suggesting we change the term – I think it’s here to stay in the short- to mid-term, at least. However, perhaps identifying challenges can help us on the agency side to address them.

Consider the term for a second.

Social media.

What image does that conjure up? Videos with comments enabled? Text with sharing features enabled? Tweets of links to stories about you? These might fall into a definition of social media, but they’re not really two-way – not truly. What’s more, they do seem to embody the approach taken to social media by many organizations – public and private alike.

Suppose for a moment we drop “social media” as a term and adopt a much more simplified “online networking.” We’d be using a term that, inherently, implies two important characteristics:

  • Two-way interaction. Networking is, at its core, a two-way interaction. You need to speak and to listen. Networking doesn’t involve broadcasting.
  • Long-term. Networking involves relationships. Relationships take time to nurture.

Nothing rocket-science based here, right? This is stuff that’s preached all the time. However, if it’s that easy, why are companies still engaging in marketing activities that essentially consist of one-shot, one-way fire-and-forget promotions that do nothing to shift the needle in the long term?

Back to “online networking.” What changes if we use that term?

  • YouTube: “Videos with comments” becomes Engaging people in a story, or enabling other people to tell your story as they see it
  • Blog: “Text with sharing” becomes a genuine conversation, where you solicit and respond to feedback from your stakeholders
  • Twitter: “Tweets of links to stories about you” becomes an opportunity to engage in real-time conversations with people

Changing a term won’t solve a widespread problem, and there’s much more to the issue than just a simple term (inter-discipline differences, for one, are another huge gap). I’m not suggesting we drop “social media” for “online networking.” However, if shifting the way you think can help – even slightly – to put you in the shoes of the people you work with, and that can help you to identify problems and solutions, then surely it’s worth it.

What do you think?

  • Dave,
    You raise some excellent and thought-provoking points.

    I’m a firm believer that nomenclature is a key factor in how people perceive ideas, objects and tools. The term “social media” may indeed evolve over time into something clearer and more descriptive. At the moment, for many people it seems to conjure up images of sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, with endless messaging, video and comments that are very difficult to sort through.

    I think that the key is education about what social media can and can’t do, and how it should be applied in different situations. Most people seem to be able to grasp and attribute some value to social media in terms of their personal lives; but as a business tool, it’s not quite there yet. Awareness and best practices are rapidly evolving but not widely applied or understood by many companies.

    Hopefully, the business world will continue to learn to use social media (or whatever it ends up being called) as a legitimate and valuable tool for interaction and engagement, rather than another way to bombard them with advertising and promotion. Companies will benefit greatly from the insight and real feedback from clients, customers and the public that social media seems to be able to provide.