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?

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  • Ebony Sager

    I remember about 10 years ago (ouch) discussing the concept of the internet changing from a broadcast medium to a place where individuals will “build communities for people with like minded interests”. That the internet wouldn’t just be a method of consuming messaging but for interacting and joining so I prefer Online Networking to Social Media but can it become part of the nomenclature?

  • I’ve made a similar argument before by railing against the use of social media as a singular noun – it mistakenly suggests that every tool and channel in the social realm operates the same way or can be used for the same purpose.

    Ultimately I think/hope we’ll reach a point where we don’t need an umbrella term for these things anymore. They are tools that organizations or individuals can use in pursuit of their strategies. They have some shared characteristics of course, characteristics that other traditional tools don’t have, but they’re no more a homogeneous entity than a press release and an ad buy.

    So would calling it online networking solve the problem? To a certain extent, maybe, but it still suggests that all social media are networking tools. Is enabling comments really networking? Most times comment threads are a series of two-way conversations. I don’t think switching one umbrella term for another is ultimately going to make our lives easier.

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  • This is a very interesting reflection on a trend I am seeing more and more of each day – people using social media as a megaphone. Sure, you can shout all you like, but what’s it worth if no one is listening? It’s like Leo Laporte’s recent experience of “shouting into a vast echo chamber where no one could hear [him] because they were too busy shouting themselves.” Even worse is the huge number of people using social media as free advertising. I would like to see more people understanding any relationship as two-way and long-term, but it seems this “get-but-not-give” attitude towards relationships has become far too engrained in our personal and professional lives to be fully beat out of social media. I remain optimistic however that as we engage one another more in discussions like this, the trend will slow.

  • Dave, I completely agree.

    Also, the term is applied far too broadly. It wobbles randomly from PR to customer service, then leans diffidently toward advertising before wobbling back toward market research. The more we struggle to make social media make sense as “all of the above” the less it seems like we know what we’re talking about. More here:

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  • Great observation of bringing something old “online networking” back to the forefront of “Social Media”. I recall this term being all the rage back when it was email lists serv’s and “chat rooms” that were the medium of choice. The increasing trend I see now w/ this is most are using “media” and not including or ignoring the “social”. Remember the old BB’s? Well this is what most are using or calling their “Social Media”. And then they wonder why it’s not working.

    You make a great point. Thanks

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  • Hey Dave,

    I think more than anything, the problem is that pr and marketers don’t want to take the time to listen. They just see social media as a place to “scorch the earth”.

    Maybe this isn’t their fault- sm can seem vast and overwhelming. How do they know who to listen to? Who to really spend time engaging?

    I think the answer is sticking to relevant communities and then engaging with influencers. The message may not hit as many people, but the people who hear it will REALLY hear it. More importantly- they will talk about it and send the message out in a viral effect.

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  • The problem with the term is companies forget the social part of it because they think in marketing terms. And they don’t really get marketing – they think that is another term for advertising which they think of as interruptive and about selling. No one cares about companies; they care about people. That’s why it’s called “social” media. Please forgive the linking, but here’s my post on that: No one cares about your brand.

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  • Dave,
    I don’t think that the terms social media and online networking can be used the way you’re getting at. While they do have overlapping ideas, it’s the root words that do have an impact. I believe it would be better to say that social media, the media itself, is a tool for online networking, but they are not the same thing.
    The media is the item itself, and the social is what makes the media shareable, usable in many situations. While networking gives an implication of meeting new people, expanding relationships.
    Two separate ideas, brought together by the means.

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  • Good post–thoughtful and provocative. But in a word, no. The term ‘social media’ is not hurting the industry–it’s HELPING.

    Words are meant to communicate–they are shortcuts to help us to a common understanding, right? ‘Social media’ is a short cut to understanding marketing in a different light for companies.

    It may mean different things to different people, but that’s okay. And some will execute better than others.

    Ultimately, ALL media is social media. Its point is to *engage*. A television show is social media, cuz if you’re not talking about it around the water cooler with your friends, then the show isn’t going to be on the air much longer. The only difference now is with certain technology and tools, you can communicate with a wider group of people in a wider geographic region.

    But you’re still engaging.

    A telephone is a social media tool. It allows you to connect and engage with other people.

    But we don’t think of these as social media tools because they lack the *reach* of what we typically think of as social media–so therefore ‘social media’ serves as a useful term to understand (and define) that SM is a mechanism that connects us to many, is not dependent on time/scheduling and is egalitarian–anyone can participate.

    So if that means comments on a Youtube video, a twitter account, a Facebook page, etc…then that’s fine. In most companies, social media adoption is paid for by marketing dollars. In large part because for the past three years, social media gurus of all types have been hyping “you have GOT to be involved in social media or your brand is missing out!!!”

    Is a marketing person going to say “I have $100K to spend on increasing my revenue. I think I’ll spend that on by having other people tell my story, engage in some conversations and maybe even solicit some feedback.”

    I don’t think so. But if they remember “what ever I do, I have to add a social component to it”, then THAT is likely to happen.

    I’ve been in the ‘online networking’ business for the past 11 years, and I’ll maintain that there is a considerable difference between online networking and social media. They are different things that sometime behave similarly.

    The difference is the depth of the connection and what is required to sustain the relationships. Online networking is deeper and involves connecting to strangers…forming a REAL connection.

    When I’m on Facebook, I’m not networking. I’m being social. When I’m on LinkedIn, I’m online networking. When I make a comment on a blog post, I’m being social. I *could* be networking, but probably not. The strongest evidence of that is….how many people commenting on this blog post either reference someone else’s comments, or even speak with another commenter?

    Rarely, if ever. We’re not communicating with each other, thus not networking. We’re just being social.

    Anyway…sorry for the long response. I’m being overly social today. 😉

  • I think that a lot of companies focus on the “media” aspect more than the “social” aspect. We see posts every week talking about how social media is about pulling rather than pushing content out, but I still think that misses the mark. What about viewing places like Twitter and Facebook, and even your company blog, as conversation-starters? That, to me, gets more to the core of things.

    So yes, the term “social media” may be working against “social media”… but I’m not quite sure that online networking is a better term. Conversational media came to mind, but that sounds – well – too corporate for my liking.

    Community Manager | Radian6

  • Actually the new media,widely called”social media” is a platform for online networking.

  • Ironically, when everyone was calling the phenomenon “social networking” I thought it was too narrow in scope and that “social media” was more appropriate. “Media” captures the fact that all communications went through and were highly influenced in a McLuhanesque way by the medium. And I mean medium in the broadest sense (painters refer to the type of paint and canvas as a medium as it shapes the nature of the painting). “Social” refers to the fact that most people use it to facilitate social interactions which by their nature is two-way.

    It’s true that many businesses have treated it as another broadcast channel thus concentrating on the “media” while neglecting the “social” part but that’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I like where you’re going on the “Networking involves relationships. Relationships take time to nurture.” Unfortunately, ‘online networking’ sounds more like something an IT guy might’ve said during the 90’s rather than relationship building through two-way communication. Part of it might be because the term ‘networking’ conjures up images of people collecting business cards for short-term personal gain as much as images of people meeting people over a drink and later building genuine relationships.

    So I’m going to throw out a third term, “digital relationship building”. Now we’ve captured the medium, digital, which allows for a broad swath of technologies, and relationships, which is what it’s all about.

  • Dave,

    Good thoughts,

    And I do think the name of something has a tremendous impact on how it’s used/viewed, etc. So it’s an issue worth discussing.

    Your rationale has led me to using the term “relationship tools” because you’re trying to build relationships.

    Jay Bear however, made a good point that social media in many ways isn’t about conversation or scorched earth. It’s about humanizing a company –

    Even if you changed the name, I think for a while still advertisers and businesses will continue their scorched earth policies, because it’s what they know.

    It’s human nature to use old techniques for a new medium – think newspapers in web 1.0 just publishing online their physical product – but as more companies see that scorched earth techniques don’t work, the more they’ll switch to building relationships with clients.

  • It’s certainly worth noting that the term “social media” can prevent certain companies from investing in this technology, as allowing interaction with your news and branding requires full time management, and this can certainly put a lot of businesses off investing.

    Reading the comments below I’d definitely agree that most companies tend to focus on the “media” rather than a “social” aspect. Having good interaction with your clients is essential and this is the whole point of social media.

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  • Social networking IS online networking. The term itself has become so watered down that most don’t even want to hear the words any more! Maybe we should call it “social connecting” because really, networking on a relational level takes more time than just a few tweets on Twitter!

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  • I like this discussion a lot david and blogged something similar a bit ago (that social media has become diluted as a term). Thanks for continuing to propagate this message, good stuff.

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