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?