Thursday, March 1, 2007

On defining social media

Are you still trying to wrap your head around the whole idea of social media? I found a couple of neat perspectives recently.

There was an article in the weekend Ottawa Citizen about the fall and rise of the amateur, starting with the 19th century when amateur photographer George Eastman parlayed his kitchen experiments into the Kodak conglomerate. The article describes how in the early part of the 20th century, amateurism came to be seen as synonymous with mediocrity, and to opine that in the 21st century, technology has once again empowered amateurs and imbued them with a certain authority.

This paragraph in particular explains the growing trend of the populace to trust the voice and authority of a blogger or other virtual (pardon the pun) stranger over the Internet:

Mass media have become too small for all the energy possessed by the abundance of skilled people out there. This is not a movement of elite amateurs, but rather of non-elite amateurism. The new enthusiasts are flourishing in an era when the supposed professionals -- politicians, pundits, weapons inspectors, emergency relief experts -- seem to fail us at every turn. The incompetence of these experts has not only fuelled the amateurs but has also, not coincidentally, become the amateurs' target. No wonder so many people are relying on themselves and looking to one another as sources of information, entertainment and assistance.

Duelling bloggers Robert Scoble and Stowe Boyd tackled the topic of defining social media on the weekend. Scobles opines that the best way to understand “social” media is to compare it with what came before (i.e. print media, TV, radio, etc.) and notes the main difference is the interactivity of blogs, the range of technology (i.e. audio, video and text all in the same post), and editorial control.

In response, Stowe Boyd posted an elegant diatribe on social media. He first provides four characteristics that define social media: it is not a broadcast medium (i.e. convential one-to-many communication model); it is many-to-many; it is open; it is disruptive. (In explaining the last, he says, “We, the edglings, are having a conversation amongst ourselves, now; and if CNN, CEOs, or the presidential candidates want to participate they will have to put down the megaphone and sit down at the cracker barrel to have a chat.”)

Finally, he offers first a prediction, and then a working definition of social media:

The societal phenomenon of Social Media (supported by the nuts and bolts of social media tools) has been a profound one, over the past decade. I predict that the impact in the next decade will be even more sweeping, and much more widespread. As an additional billion or two of the world's population finds its way onto the web, our only hope may be that the web finds its way into the world: that the principles of openness, transparency, diversity, and egalitarianism that engender web culture remake the world, one conversation at a time. Political parties, multinationals, the corner dress shop, your county government -- everything will be influenced by the infectious openness of the web, because the edglings will simply not settle for less.

That's another way of defining Social Media: it is the way that we are organizing ourselves to communicate, to learn, and to understand the world and our place in it. And we just won't accept any models for that that aren't intensely social: we won't put up with large organizations telling us what is right, or true, or necessary. We will now have those conversations among ourselves, here, at the edge. Social Media has released us, freed us: and we won't go back.