At the first Social Media Club Sydney (#SMCSyd) Leslie Nassar (aka the fake Stephen Conroy) challenged the audience to provide a definition of social media. No one was able to satisfy his request and our collective inability to articulate effectively what social media is, was the subject of some humor and derision. Given the complexity of the subject and its fluidity that was perhaps a little unfair. At the second #SMCSyd a few people put forward their various definitions, but (if I recall correctly) they were generally orientated towards trying to differentiate which technologies did or didn’t classify.
“social software is about a movement, not simply a category of technologies… it’s certainly not complete and as a category, it’s difficult to make sense of its boundaries.” (boyd 2007b)
Like the quote by boyd above suggests, I prefer a looser definition. I see social technologies…social media…social software, whatever you want to call it, to be about both tools and practices. This makes it inherent messy and difficult to capture and describe.
According to boyd (2007a) the phenomenon of social technologies can be characterised by greater social participation in mediated contexts (boyd 2007a). Terms like user generated content, crowdsourcing and citizen media all refer to emerging forms of social participation supported by social technologies. These activities are made possible thanks to the ease with which we can now connect, communicate, produce, share, replicate, locate and distribute information. These new capabilities have had, and continue to have, a profound impact on our social, cultural and technological practices (boyd 2009; Shirky 2008). This transformation has been made possible by the wide availability and accessibility of technology. Most importantly this has included the shift in technology ownership from organisations and companies, to everyday people (Battarbee 2003; Shirky 2008).
Another definition of social media, this time provided by the Finnish research institute VTT, refers to social media as both a set of tools and a modus operandi (Heinonen & Halonen 2007). This definition also re-enforces the dual emphasis on technologies and social practices. For me the terms social technologies, social software, social media, and at times Web 2.0 can all be used interchangeably. That there are so many different acceptable terms also emphasises the legitimate variations, definitions and potential for interpretation that exists.
In my own work I use the term social technologies because it makes clear reference to the socio-technical nature of the phenomenon which we are attempting to describe. In addition, it can encompass combinations of mobile and/or online technologies, potentially indicating something broader than a single piece of software. This framing or definition is deliberately vague in order to indicate the inadequacy of any single term to describe its complexity and fluidity.
For designers, social technologies become a tool with which we design, the subject of our design and the context within which we design. It’s messy and it’s disruptive. Hence, I guess, the stumped silence at #SMCSyd #1.
Battarbee, K.:(2003) Co-experience: the social user experience. CHI. ACM, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA
boyd, d.:(2009) Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics Information Management and Systems, Vol. PhD. University of California, Berkeley
boyd, d.: (2007a) Social Network Sites: Public, Private, or What? :
boyd, d.: (2007b) The Significance of Social Software. In: Schmidt, T.N.B.a.J. (ed.): BlogTalks Reloaded: Social Software Research & Cases Norderstedt 15-30 2.
Heinonen, S., Halonen, M.: (2007) Making Sense of Social Media Interviews and Narratives In: 2, S.F.R. (ed.
Shirky, C.: (2008) Here comes everybody. Penguin Press