A Definitive Explanation of Social Media

If you want Wikipedia’s definition of Social Media, you can find it here.

I like the definition and I think it’s accurate, if slightly long winded. But if someone asked me what social media is, personally I’d reply with “Social Media is any new web tool or technology that connects people.”

I’ve been thinking about it a little more and essentially, all social media can be broken down into 3 simple categories.

Social Media

Socially Created Content
A lot of what comes to mind when people think “social media” is really just the Socially Created Content piece. This includes things like blogs, podcasts, Flickr or Picasa, YouTube, and Wikipedia. Essentially anything where the main focus is content creation. This is one of the fastest growing parts of social media, primarily because of the shrinking the barriers to entry. You can start a blog that showcases your vacation pics on Flickr and links to your channel on YouTube in less than half an hour. Don’t believe me? Try it.

Socially Highlighted Content
The second major part of social media is Socially Highlighted Content. SHC works because when people find something truly great out there on the internet, they think “Wow I really like this! I think everyone should check this out.” Sites like Digg, StumbleUpon, Reddit, Del.icio.us, Yahoo! Buzz, Mixx, and many others, serve as a showcase/portal for content that people believe the community will find value in. If you’re looking for the consensus best of the web, check here first.

Social Networks
Along with Socially Created Content, Social Networks are the other half of what people think of regarding social media. By now, everyone has heard of Facebook, LinkedIn, and (unfortunately) MySpace. These networks, among many others, allow you to create profiles and connect with peers, friends, coworkers, and complete strangers to form a network of “linked” individuals. Social Networks have become the Rolodex or little black book of today’s generation, and represent an unparalleled way to stay connected.

The In-Between
Obviously not everything falls neatly into those three categories, hence my beautiful illustration (watch out Armano). There’s a lot of overlap, and a lot of sites that represent the intersection of two or even all three pieces. For example, a microblogging site like Twitter sits at the intersection of Socially Created Content and Social Networking, it’s the perfect blend of both. The same goes for Squidoo for Socially Created Content and Socially Highlighted Content and Google Reader’s share function for Social Networking and Socially Highlighted content.

But that’s Just my take on it.
Think I’m wrong? Don’t like the categories or found something that doesn’t fit? Let me know. I’d love to hear your feedback on this. It just wouldn’t be social without you.

32 thoughts on “A Definitive Explanation of Social Media”

  1. Matt, this is helpful stuff. As you’ve accurately described, a lot of this flows around into and through more than one category. It’s all sharing – sharing my creative production (blogging, photos, audio, video, etc.), sharing my status, sharing resources and my feelings about them, sharing contacts. It’s give-and-receive networking electronically, that often leads to deeper collaboration, conversation, and face-to-face networking.

  2. @Steve
    Thank you very much sir. You’re completely on when you mention sharing. I think that the new social technologies play perfectly off peoples natural tendency to want to share things with others. The more they can learn to harness that, they better they’ll be.

  3. Matt, I really like this! Boils all the Social whatevers down to what they really are and how they relate. Steve’s comment about “sharing” is important and you should consider working it into the post. As for the graphic, nicely done. The only things you are missing to raise it to the Armano level are some swirly circles within circles and some bathroom people.

  4. @Doug
    Thanks! I was going for simplicity, because like the Wikipedia definition, I think it can get muddled slightly sometimes by over complication. Added swirly circles and bathroom-sign people to the checklist for next graphic.

  5. Nice post, Matt. I like the graphic and the schema you’re using – although I wonder if the top circle is ‘socially created content’ or ‘consumer generated content’ (to me socially created implies collaboration, which might be there in wikis but not necessarily in an individual blog) or something more along the lines of ‘socially shared content’ per Doug’s suggestion (created by individuals but shared with, for and by the commmunity). I think your notion of ‘socially highlighted’ content is key – I talk about the importance of curation as an engine that makes the social mediasphere hum and be useful to a broader audience (don’t show me everything, help me find the best, most relevant stuff for me – that’s where something like digg or stumbleupon or even linkrolls really come in.)

    As for Wikipedia’s official definition – I use it all the time, but actually think it focused to much on the whats (social media is blogs, networks, podcasts, wikis, etc) and not enough on the whys (because people want to connect with other people.) You’ve done a nice job of capturing that important distinction.

    Rock on,

  6. Hey Matt,
    Awesome write up.
    I would probably put Twitter in the middle as well as I believe it can be used for Socially Highlighted Content. I’ve shared many sites on twitter with my friends and hell, I got to your site by a post on Twitter :)

  7. Great graphic I really like how you tied things together with the post. Yes the why is often neglected and most often leaves marketers wondering how the hell to work the systems. Personalizing business is the most powerful way to make money online or off line.
    Social Media allows a larger audience to view a very personalized message. The best is yet to come because competition has forced all of these sites to become smarter and more innovative. I can’t wait to see what is next.

    Great Post….Keep On It!

    Daniel Pyle

  8. @Greg
    Now that’s a solid comment. I’d agree that not everything is created by a group, but at the same time, most things are created for a group (or at least one other person) making it inherently social. I think that “sharing” is really one of the great foundations of everything that makes social media go.

    For SHC I totally agree with you. I think that sometimes, it’s better to let people, not an algorithm, tell you what’s good/relevant.

    Great stuff as always. Thanks for reading!

    I agree that Twitter can sometimes be used as a form of Socially Highlighted content (and I’m glad that’s how you got here). But in terms of it’s primary function, which I think we’re still trying to figure out, is more focused on content creation and networking. I’m glad you’ve brought this up however because it highlights how mercurial a lot of social media really is.

    Thanks for reading!

    I think “personalizing business” is a great way to think about it. Every time someone says “monetize” or “leverage” it makes my skin crawl. Where are those Social Media red and yellow cards when you need them? In terms of competition, I agree that it has spurred some innovation and am excited to see where we go from here. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. “Social Media is any new web tools or technology that connect people.”

    I’m not sure I completely agree with the ‘new’ modifier, but I like the fact that you are going for a simple definition. I think that those of us on the bleeding edge tend to forget that there are constantly people that are JUST NOT discovering this space. And I think that’s hugely important, because they are bringing FRESH EYES and a fresh POV to this space and possibilities here.

    We can learn a LOT from the ‘newbies’, and quite honestly, there are far more exciting to me right now than the ‘early adopters’ are.

  10. Whups, meant JUST NOW discovering this space.

    Of course there are also some of us that are JUST NOW discovering the need to proofread comments before submitting…

  11. This is a nice simple definition Matt, clean graphics.

    You’ve just got to be prepared to answer the next question from your clients, which is “So what? How does this benefit me?”

    And as you answer them, it’s important to bear in mind that most people don’t, nor will they ever, have blogs. Or very active StumbledUpon accounts. Or even Flickr accounts. To Mack’s point, you’ve got to qualify your answer by noting that there will always be various degrees of activity and usage of the various social media and that most people will trend towards casual users rather than evangelists.

  12. @Mack
    The reason I use “new” in that phrase is to parse out things like chatrooms, IM, and email. I understand that “new” is completely relative, but had to divide it somewhere.

    I agree, and I’ve written about it before, that many of us web pioneers forget that most of the people still a ways behind us. We need to focus on the POV of those we’re trying to reach.

    Thanks for reading!

    Glad you like it.

    I think it’s important to make social media tools and tactics integrate with your larger marketing goals/strategy. I agree that many people will not ever have blogs or flickr pages, but they will still read content and look at pictures online. In fact, sometimes social media isn’t right at all. If you make manhole covers or run an armored car service, it’s probably a bad play. It’s all about what’s right for your target.

    Thanks for the great comment.

  13. This is very good.

    I think there’s some room to amend it. For instance, Facebook is the world’s biggest photo sharing site according to their numbers. And I agree with the comment that Twitter’s also great for highlighted content.

    Alan’s thoughts are dead on too, but that can be the subject of another post and doesn’t all need to be covered here.

  14. @David
    Thanks! The reason that I listed Facebook in the social network section is that social networking, to me at least, is it’s primary function. Being the worlds largest photo sharing site certainly makes a case otherwise, but to me the mission statement of “connecting you to the people around you” stands for social networking.

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that these sites/tools drift in and our of each section constantly, and they really are whatever we make them to be. (it just would have made a really, really, complicated venn diagram!)

  15. I was stumbled here. Very, very good post. Clean and clear. One question: what does the “FF” stand for in the middle of all three circles?

  16. @Stan
    Glad you stumbled by, and you like the post (bonus!). It just occurred to me that I didn’t explain friendfeed, which I picked as the amalgam of all of the circles. It’s a very cool “social aggregator” with a lot of possibilities.

    Thanks for reading!

  17. Matt, this is very clean and clear – bravo!

    To add to the comments, the top circle may put some businesses off of social media. If we are taking the POV of our audience, a business that caters to other businesses doesn’t want a “consumer” feel to their content. However, we usually hear more about “Consumer Generated Content” than we do “Socially Generated Content”. Not sure a B2B would want to be considered social. However, they would want to have conversations with their customers. Perhaps the “shared” word is better, or how about “Conversational Content”?

    Hmm, need to work on that one a bit, as all of these tools are conversational, and potentially many have great content.

    Thanks again – I will most likely be taking up this debate with the social media class I am teaching at UC San Diego Extension!

  18. That sounds pretty true to me. The three work together very well, and I’m fond of the direction the Internet is taking.

  19. @Becky
    I understand that a B2B company wouldn’t want a “consumer” feel, but still other businesses are the consumers of their products/services. I think that B2B would benefit from seeing things from a collaborative point of view, and that is inherently social.

    Really glad you’d be interested in sharing that with your class! Let me know if you’d like to talk about things further.

    Thanks for reading.

    Thanks, I tried to keep things fairly simple and straight forward. And yes, I’m looking forward to see how things develop too.

  20. Great post. Have you ever seen the preso called What the F*$% is Social Media? I think that readers who enjoyed this post, will also find it highly relevant and also entertaining. Now if we could just figure out a way to convince our brand partners the power of social media/networking/sharing, we would have an entirely new and different revenue stream! Check out the blog post I referenced here: http://tiny.cc/UR41s.

  21. Matt, I really like this construct. Not only is it simple, but it emphasizes the social importance of these technologies and not just the technologies themselves.

    I’m going to adapt it for my purposes by adding a fourth circle called “Socially Organized Content.” While sites such as digg, StumbleUpon and Reddit are about serendipitous discovery, I look at Wikipedia, del.icio.us and Google (as well as tagging and linking in general) as tools for purposeful organization conduct in a social context. I think that’s important element that should be included.

    Thanks so much for creating this construct. It’s been a big help in my thinking and I will certainly share (and credit you) in what I create.

    BTW, how did you create this image? What application did you use? It’s very attractive.

  22. @Kris
    Thanks! I have seen that preso and love it. Great info and just enough kick. I think we’re on the right track. Thanks for reading

    Thanks Jeff, glad you like it. I think you make a good point about Socially Organized Content, but I feel that Digg, SU, and Reddit highlight content in specific categories making it more organized than just good luck. Glad you’re looking forward to sharing it! Also, I used Adobe Illustrator to make the graphic per some advice from David Armano. Thanks again.

  23. Damn, I was doubtful from the post, but you really nailed the current social media standing. Bravo.

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