The Social Media Primer – Part I

September 8th, 2009

One of the thing I’m often asked about by clients and colleagues is social media. Social media, social networking tools, web 2.0, blogs, wikis, etc., etc. And the way that I’m asked about these memes makes me realize that they’re just out there floating around. They tend to be used interchangeably and without much thought to what exactly they mean. So, I’d like to get into these things in detail, but in order to ensure that there’s no confusion, what I’d like to do in the first part of this series is to deal with definitions.

So, what is social media? To begin with, the very name is redundant. Media, by its very definition, is a social thing. There is no a-social media. It’s a human construct, folks, and it’s a vehicle for communication. The world wide web is itself a social medium. Music is a social medium. Television is a social medium. That billboard on the highway? Yep, social media.

So, it’s not enough to just say “social media.” In fact, it’s counter productive to the discovery of the issue at hand. What is important to know is how that media is used — to know what purpose it serves in the social group. Because once you start asking questions about how a particular medium works, then you get to the interesting questions.

So, let’s start with an easy thought exercise. Television is a social medium, what purpose does it serve? Answer: it disseminates video productions that entertain, inform and convey the opinions of its broadcasters, sometimes as mitigated by their advertisers and the government.

When approached this way, TV is pretty simple. Things that entertain or inform more will be more successful than those that don’t. Things that entertain and inform the most number of people will be the most successful. Of course, in this last matter, there’s no accounting for taste.

But the important part of considering this medium’s purpose is that it allows us to also discover how it works. It is a some-to-many medium for communication. It conveys information from some (TV Broadcasters) to many (Us). We give weight and value to who the particular some is, just as in other social situations. And as you will see later, that’s what’s important.

That was easy.

Now, what about the tools that we commonly refer to as social media? Let’s start with the easy ones: Blogs,  Wikis, Discussion Forums, and Social Platforms. As mentioned above, and as with all tools, the important thing to know about each is what purpose each has to its community.

Blog? It is a one-to-many medium whose purpose is to convey the thoughts and ideas of a single individual to the world. Sometimes it is a some-to-many medium, as with editorialized blogs, but the voice and opinion is without exception singular. This is an example of a blog (duh).

Wiki? It is a many-to-many medium whose purpose is to document social knowledge. A story I like to tell to explain the social purpose of wikis is one an old professor of mine told me back before the internet. He was hired to follow around the repair technicians for Xerox (or some other copier company) to document how they worked and look for manners in which they could increase efficiency. He quickly discovered that the technicians carried two copies of their field repair manual, one that was pristine (as they were not allowed to mark them) and one with a myriad of notes that they kept to themselves. His advice, obviously, was to make the retrieval of those notes and their incorporation into future manuals part of the process. Like this pre-internet process of reconciling the ideal with the real, a wiki allows for the collection of the notes in society’s pages that would otherwise be hidden or lost with the individual.

By the way, for those of you that don’t know, this gathering of information from the community is formally known as crowdsourcing.

Now, discussion forums are interesting when considered in this way because they sometimes take the form of many-to-many media, and at other times many-to-one. Again, this is largely dictated by function. In some cases, discussion forums are a public forum for the community to ask questions, where a specific answer is sought. You will, for instance, see support forums and ranking systems that aim to help a reader point out the ‘best’ answer to a questions. This is in effect a many-to-one communication, where the crowd asks, and either the moderator, or a knowledge expert answers. The twist here is that it is not always known who the ‘one’ is. Also, the artifacts of many-to-one forums are themselves meant for community consumption, making it seem more like a wiki, but that is only a secondary byproduct. The value in the discussion over a wiki, however, is that related questions and answers, as well as wrong information are often documented and marked as such, and this in itself can have value.

In other cases you will see forums used, as the name implies, as a public forum. This is mostly the case in entertainment-related forums where discussion tends to be topical (the day’s episode, who wore what), or about opinion and preference. In this case, it is clearly a many-to-many means of communication that is meant to bond the individual to the  community.

So, you see, even within a single social media tool, multiple social functions can exist. As with the hammer than can be used to either drive a nail or split a skull, it is not enough to consider functionality, but rather it is the social utility that is most important when considering social media.

Which brings us to social platforms such as Facebook and MySpace. I’ve left this one to last because it’s the most complex, but not technically. It’s only complex in that it requires the above knowledge to really wrap your head around (technically, these applications are quite simple when broken down into components).

We’ll use facebook as our first example. The first thing one needs to know that it is not one, but multiple applications that sit atop one very important application that has not been mentioned yet. That application is a social network mapping (SNM) tool.  It’s not the first, and definitely not the best. These tools have been in development and use for some time, most notoriously by law enforcement agencies. As the name implies, its purpose is to record the connections between individuals and their social networks. (What’s really amazing about facebook is that a private company has gotten a large majority of the population to freely do something that wo0uld completely freak everybody out if it had been done by government).

Tin foil hats aside, let’s talk about what purpose a social network mapping tool has to a community. First and foremost it is the reinforcement of social networks. The value in an SNM like facebook is that it strengthens what are known as weak social ties.  That friend you haven’t seen in 5 years? Still there because of this type of tool. And, stalkers aside, there’s value in this to the end user and the community. But that particular value differs, depending on the particular community (We will address the value to the company in a forthcoming post)..

Consider MySpace vs. facebook. They’re very different in some ways but serve essentially the same purpose. The biggest difference is in how they are used. MySpace has evolved into a tool for mapping open social networks. It is used by musicians and artists, and has a largely younger audience that is not as concerned with privacy. In contrast to this, facebook, for the most part, is used to maintain closed social networks. We are reluctant to give strangers, our bosses, etc. access to our facebook profile (again, for the most part).

But these distinctions in purpose are important. Because just as in real life, we slide in and out of social groups and situations and adjust our decorum and persona accordingly. We will always continue to inhabit social networks in this way in real life, so any talk of supremacy of one network or the other in this regard is really just silly. Just consider LinkedIn, and you will immediately realize that there will always be a need for multiple social network sites, and they will each fulfill different roles in your life. So, the next time someone complains to you, “Why must I have multiple social network accounts?” Tell them: “because you have multiple social networks, silly!”

Now, I wrote earlier that these social platforms are multiple applications sitting on top of a single application. These applications, photo, link and video posting, games. Guess what. They serve exactly the same purpose that photos, videos and games serve in real life — to enhance and strengthen social bonds. No difference. No magic, no “paradigm shifts” or “revolutions”.

The only interesting thing here to the business person is to try and figure out how they can take advantage of the strength of social networks (both closed and open), and that’s the new thing — that you now have access to those social networks. So, while the purpose to the community is to strengthen social bonds, the byproduct of this (and other social media) is that it has made what was previously intangible available for commercial exploitation.

So, where does that leave us? Well, let’s bring it full circle and rethink what we mean by web 2.0. Usually when we talk about web 2.0, we’re referring to two separate things. The first is bidirectional communication facilitated by the world-wide-web, in contrast to the static nature of what we call web 1.0. Now, this is no paradigm shift, as we had BBSes, UseNet, IRC, and various other tools that served the same purpose as the above technologies. The shift is in that they have been democratized by becoming available through your web browser. Let’s face it, alt.fairs.renaissance is not exactly going to get a large enough audience to demand user friendly tools.

And that’s really the second thing we’re talking about with web 2.0. The recognition that the browser is a thin client application, and the myriad of tools and utilities that facilitate development of application-like web pages have taken tools that were once the purview of the few that were so interested in a narrow topic to put up with the unwieldiness of the tools at hand, and made them available to the many. What we’re talking about here are tools like AJAX, Flex, wide-spread adoption of web services, and the advent of web application frameworks like Ruby on Rails that facilitate rapid application development.

So, Web 2.0 is new tools (in the case of blogs, wikis, discussion forums and social platforms), and meta-tools, in the forms of new application development frameworks and language maturity as well as development methods.

Having identified our tools and their purpose, we are left with the question that started this discussion: what does this mean, and how does this benefit me?

What it means is that there are a myriad of tools that are readily available that previously were not that may or may not benefit your company. And also, that there are a host of development tools and methodologies for building those social media tools that are also new and improved. The work is in figuring out which his which. Not horribly exciting, I know.

The important thing to take away from all this is that the particulars and technical features of any  social media are not as important as understanding what utility it provides to the individual and the community. Further, when trying to figure out which form of social media is right for your project, you may find that nothing is just right. You may not need a blog or a wiki or a discussion forum, and we’ve all seen some pretty pointless facebook apps. That doesn’t mean you have to be left out. Social media is whatever your community requires, so don’t be boxed in by what everyone else is doing. Build your own thing using the exciting new meta-tools that are available, call it social media, call it web 2.0, and as long as it provides social utility, you’ll be fine.

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