A working definition of social media and why we couldn’t answer the question

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



  1. I find it ironic that as this topic is about social media (the first rule of which is listening) and that my own answer and perspective on this question which was provided in the Twitter stream during that event hasn’t been picked up, remembered or archived! 😀

    Social media marketing (or what I and my colleagues like to call it – Social Influence Marketing SIM) is simply:

    People having conversations online. (no rocket science)

    More broadly speaking:

    Social media is an umbrella term that defines the various activities that integrate technology, social interaction, and the construction of words, pictures, videos and audio.

    To define it, you must first understand it!

    Social media has come about as a result of the democratisation of ‘information’ (which was foretold in the Cluetrain Manifesto back in 1999):

    We have moved from an era of Information Asymmetry…
    – Information was scarce
    – Customers were ill-informed
    – Exchanges were monologues
    – Marketing was “command-and-control”

    …To Information Democracy
    – Information is ubiquitous
    – Customers are well-informed
    – Exchanges are conversations
    – Marketing is “connect-and-collaborate”

    I am constantly shocked at how many marketers don’t know or understand WHY consumers participate in social media / social networking.

    Why audiences participate in social networking:

    Meet people – 78% join to communicate with existing colleagues or develop new acquaintances

    Be entertained – 47% join in order to find entertaining content such as photos, music or videos

    Learn something – 38% join to get information from other people about topics that hold particular interest to them

    Influence others – 23% join to express their opinions in a forum where their ideas can be discussed or acted upon

    More broadly they participate to:

    Keep up friendships – Facebook is about connecting with people you know.
    Make new friends – We’ve all heard stories of people hooking up on social networks.
    Succumb to social pressure from existing friends – People in the groundswell want their friends there too.
    Pay it forward – Having seen that a site is useful, you may be moved to contribute.
    The altruistic impulse – People give blood because they think they should.
    The prurient impulse – People are fascinating. Some are sexy, some are entertaining, and some, frankly, are stupid.
    The creative impulse – Not everybody is a photographer, a writer, or a videographer, but for those who are, the web is perfect to show off their work.
    The validation principle – People who post information on Yahoo! Answers or Intuit’s tax wiki would like to be seen as knowledgeable experts.
    The affinity impulse – If your soccer team, your PTA, or your fellow Swans fans have connected online then you can join and connect with people who share your interests and concerns.

    The first step towards success in any form of marketing is understanding your intended audience and then understanding that you are not your audience. This is why technology is, and should be the last determinant of social media planning & execution, not the first.

    More of my thoughts and insights on the move of marketing from a Monologue to Dialogue here – http://www.slideshare.net/martinwalsh

  2. Thanks for this Martin, I am sure (know) people had other responses too. Just didn’t feel there was a sense of that at the time or after and also wanting to acknowledge that the subject deals with many things, meaning an answer yelled out in a bar (or in 140) hardly captures the diversity or complexity of what we are talking about.

    Thanks for presenting a marketing perspective here, and for making the necessary points to cluetrain. appreciated. This is a good overview of motivators and activities, though from my perspective in no way “wraps it up” 🙂

    (Also is it possible for you to provide the source of your stats for the record)


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