Social Media Definition (redefinition, that is)

Ayman, I know you’re sick of it by now, but I am revisiting a popular theme for this blog, “What is Social Media”. A definition of social media was attempted (by me) here, and I later added a note about a practical definition of social media in the context of teaching an interdisciplinary class on the topic.

So now, after teaching the first session of that class, let me try again. The following definition will try to broadly scope the topic as described in my Social Media class. But I also believe that this would make a good working definition of this widely-and-wildly-used phrase.

In this definition, I try to follow closely the original meaning of both “social” and “media”. Media is defined as:

the main means of mass communication (esp. television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet) regarded collectively. (Apple Dictionary)

And Social:

needing companionship and therefore best suited to living in communities “we are social beings as well as individuals.

These definitions are echoed in the following, although did not directly dictate it.  Social media, then, is any media that supports these two characteristics:

  • Posting of lasting content in public/semi public settings within an established service or system.
  • Visible and durable identity, published profile, and recognized contribution.

This definition would then include Facebook, Flickr, Delicious, MySpace, Yelp, Vimeo,, Twitter, Dogster, YouTube and their many, many likes.

The definition does not include purposely excludes old media services that allow for comments from users (no durable identity); Wikipedia (no “recognized contribution” that is easily associated with a user); or say, mobile-social applications (no posting of content => not a media!). The definition also does not newsgroups and discussion forums (no published profile, no expectation of lasting content). And it does not include communication services like IM and email that are not public, not even semi-public in nature.

Does this make sense?

8 thoughts on “Social Media Definition (redefinition, that is)

  1. Judd Antin

    The “visible and durable” identity clause would be a little too restricting for my definition. I would have said social media is something like: media that relies on social interactions, contributions, or processes to produce at least part of its content.

    From my POV Wikipedia is social media. True, for the majority of readers authorship is hard to find, but certainly not for all users (e.g. heavy contributors, administrators). Plus, Talk pages make up a big part of Wikipedia, and most comments there are signed. People who participate on Talk pages regularly build up reputations and social networks within the Wikipedia community.

    You’ve got me thinking thinking about something like Digg as well. Digg certainly relies on social processes to create content. Some types of content are identifiable (comments), but thumbs-up/thumbs-down are not. Still, I would guess that the notion that the rankings are a social product is a big part of what makes Digg, Reddit, etc. appealing to people.

  2. naaman Post author

    Yes, Wikipedia is a weird animal. I agree about the “talk page”, I would call that “Social media”. But for me what makes the media “social” is the actions it triggers (social as a consequence of the media) and not just the processes that produced it. Otherwise, wouldn’t the New York Times be social media? It relies on social interactions and contributions. I am just teasing with this answer as I know what you mean… I would just say that there’s no clear line in any such definition that allows us to judge what’s in it and what is not.

  3. Judd Antin

    Hah. You’re right. I guess we should say that all media is social. So does the definition of social media have to include something about the technical part of the socio-technical system?

    Maybe we should also acknowledge that it’s hard to define entire systems as social media. The NY Times may not be social media, but certainly has social media features…

  4. Eric Cook

    I’m wondering where private sociality occurring in the systems you mention fits into your definition, Naaman? In my dissertation work with amateur photographers, a fairly hefty percentage of my interview participants are focused primarily/exclusively on private interactions with known and (intentionally restricted) audiences — friends and family communication, for the most part.

    So these are folks doing social things with media in prototypically Social Media systems (flickr, youtube, etc), but seem to violate the “public” and “visible” criteria you mention above. Would you treat this as an edge case or beyond the definitional scope? Or am I just reading too much in the way you’re using those terms?

  5. Pingback: The new social face of multimedia tagging. › The Ayman and Naaman Show

  6. naaman Post author

    Hey Eric – Facebook photo sharing is mostly with known others; I would call it “semi public”. The idea is that you publish content to some audience, not specific individuals; even if this audience is limited. Media: you are “broadcasting”, in a sense…

    Having said that, there’s a fine line… Facebook and Flickr photo sharing are easily “social media” to my taste; Picasa Web may not be quite “social” enough (but getting there).

  7. naaman Post author

    And, Ayman, some of us need to teach and need some criteria to guide their teaching. Call it “characterization of what I feel is essence in my take of social media” – I just used a more simple term, “a definition”.

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