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Is Social Media Social?

The word ‘social’ has several meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary. The social in ‘social media’ most likely refers to meaning number three: “relating to or designed for activities in which people meet each other for pleasure.” The keyword there is ‘meet’. Like chimpanzees and ants, humans are social creatures (see meaning number four: “breeding or living in colonies or organised communities”), and our social bonds are cemented by face-to-face meetings. 

However, the most prevalent forms of social media – such as blogging, sharing photos, sharing videos, online gaming, Second Life, MySpace, Facebook, etc – are mostly performed by people sitting alone in front of computer screens.

Any interaction is usually via words only: comments on blog posts or instant messages to friends or strangers. And according to a 1971 study by Albert Mehrabian, the words we use in a conversation only account for 7% of our decision as to whether or not we like the other person. 38% is from tone of voice and 55% from body language. So if we interact only via words, we are squandering a large part of our natural gift for communication.

So is social media social?

In my opinion, it is only social if it leads to actually going out to meet people. Which is perhaps why Facebook was such a hit in 2007, and why it may be the only technology which really deserves the label – because it can get you down to the pub with your mates.

Please leave a comment if you agree or disagree, but especially if you agree.

PS: By this line of thinking, online dating also qualifies as social media, though Albert’s study shows that chatting by email for a month before meeting doesn’t improve the odds of liking each other by all that much. I wonder what he would have to say about webcams.

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  1. Ok maybe its just an example – the point still stands – i did not bring it up to make an argument about geography but semantics. Sorry i presented it as the former. Please try to understand the point.

    Posted 22nd January 2008 at 9:45 am | Permalink
  2. What i really like about this blog is the fact that it is that the readers speak with one another loads i.e. is not restricted in a two-way communication between reader and blogger. Whenever i enter this place i feel i am in a room or IM forum.

    I suppose one reason for this is that most readers treat it as a room to socialise in, visiting again and again whenever we have the time, rather than an exhibition you visit, talk with the artist, write your comment in the book, leave and never return.

    Posted 22nd January 2008 at 4:52 pm | Permalink
  3. In response to Pete, I think that social media’s purpose, or rather the reason these various websites were invented, was to make money for their creators. Maybe some began as “wouldn’t it be great if…” but the revenue potential must have been close to the surface.

    Attracting lots of registered and regular users seems to be part of this business model. And it happens that what attracts people is the ability to network and share. So perhaps social media is just a very successful byproduct, a means to an end, rather than something with its own purpose and function

    A possible byproduct of social meida: I think I might visit Dartmouth, it looks beautiful from above.

    And many thanks to Theo for his kind words about this blog – I have very much enjoyed participating in the discussion too.

    Posted 22nd January 2008 at 8:53 pm | Permalink
  4. Hmmm – interesting.

    Did Paul Reuter start Reuters just to make money? Perhaps. But he also helped start a data communication revolution.

    And there are, of course, lots of easier ways to make money – including plenty on the internet – other than building social media sites.

    My view is that most people who start these things *also* want to do something useful. Beyond just making money.

    And whether it’s an accident or not the question remains: what is the aggregate purpose of social media. What do all social media sites have in common?

    Are they just there to help people make more (or better) friends? Is that as big as our vision gets?

    PS Dartmouth is great and the river trip upstream is just sublime.

    Posted 22nd January 2008 at 9:49 pm | Permalink
  5. I don’t think all inventions had money in mind – like the wheel, or rockets, and perhaps washing machines. But to be able to handle a billion visits a month, you need a lot of capacity, which is expensive, so you have to follow the money to some extent. Perhaps the question is “Why do people use social media sites?” I think it is, as you said, to keep in touch with friends and to strengthen offline relationships. Some people make new friends online – but I don’t know what percentage of old versus new is. What makes you think our collective vision is bigger than that?

    Posted 23rd January 2008 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  6. Why do I think our collective vision is bigger than just making friends? Blimey, I hope it is. Otherwise we will never improve the world we live in. I think everyone wants to make the/their world a better place. Don’t you?

    Traditional media help people communicate in other ways – they inform us (some would say not much). They educate us – how else do I know so much about say climate change?

    I think that people collectively (all those entrepreneurs and visionaries and practical people) have created the traditional media to serve our needs – for communication, education, information, entertainment etc.

    What we (and especially people like you all at NM) are doing at the moment is working out how to make sure social media best meet those same needs, whatever they are.

    To do that, surely we need to work out “Why do people use social media sites?” Or in other words, what needs are being met? My personal view is it goes far beyond just making friends. That’s what I mean by a bigger vision.

    Posted 23rd January 2008 at 10:53 am | Permalink
  7. That everyone wants to make the world a better place sounds too optimistic. Their world sounds more realistic perhaps.

    I am not sure that it is altogether a bad thing to have selfish motives driving projects or inventions that help improve the world. Even if it is not money, it is often ego, taking up a challenge or other personal motives.

    In any case i agree that the emphasis you place on understanding human needs, for the purpose of understanding the role and future of social media.

    Posted 23rd January 2008 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  8. Sorry – I was just referring to a collective vision regarding social media. And I don’t think it’s given that everyone wants to make the world a better place. It would be great if social media could be used to deter global warming or something similar – but I’m not sure how it will be pushed in that direction unless there is money to be made.

    Posted 23rd January 2008 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  9. According to Boston-based think tank Corporation 2020 (and several others) the purpose of tomorrow’s business corporation will be to “harness private interests to serve the public interest.”

    Interesting that this is happening at the same time as a revolution in the media is also taking place – from traditional to “social” (or “new”).

    Posted 23rd January 2008 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  10. Hi Paul

    Re-reading your post it seems just a tad negative.

    Don’t you think the media might have some kind of role in improving the way the world works?

    And if money is generated along the way what is so bad about that?

    Of course it’s possible that the social benefit of social media is just a by-product of a money-making objective behind it.

    But doesn’t that beg another question: What if we (all of us) seized hold of social media and tried to give it a useful purpose? Isn’t that close to what “social media goodness” means?

    Posted 23rd January 2008 at 6:35 pm | Permalink
  11. Couldnt agree with you more Pete. I dont think there’s anything bad about that especially if we think of money as ‘people buying into an idea’, enjoying the product etc

    Coming back to the baptism debate. How bout digital media? It isolates a property all ‘new’ or ‘social’ media share (though not a very telling one), and it does not face any of the problems ‘new’ and ‘social’ have.

    Posted 24th January 2008 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  12. Thanks Theo, a perfect definition of money.

    The name’s not that relevant to me. I think we know what new or digital or social media are. And what they mainly are is something different from traditional media. As Jenny said it’s just a handy moniker.

    But in the theory of change, there’s an essential idea called “agency”. Agency is about having the power to do something about something. Critically, it’s also about believing one has that power.

    In other words, if you don’t think you can change something, you won’t.

    It strikes me that rather than debating what social media is called, and even what’s it for today, we really need to be debating what we would like it to be for.

    In the first decade of the 21st century we (especially those of us in the developed world) are in an incredible position (economically, socially and in just about every other way) to make this kind of choice.

    And to decide consciously what we would like social media to do for the whole of humanity.

    I think we’re missing a huge trick if we don’t.

    Posted 25th January 2008 at 8:14 am | Permalink
  13. I agree with you that it is possible.

    The problem i think is in the ‘we’. There is at the moment no ‘we’, that will act as a single agent (i.e. having the same belief about what must be done and actually doing it as a single agent) in order to make social media what it thinks social media should become.

    What we have at the moment is a fragmented multiplicity of groups and individuals that use social media in a variety of different ways, and towards a variety of different goals.

    We could of course try to create a ‘we’ that will do this, and we could use social media to create this ‘we’ subject/agent. I am not convinced however that such a we is in the end a good thing. This requires a post unto itself tho.

    Posted 25th January 2008 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  14. I really like what Pete said about agency – “if you don’t think you can change something, you won’t.” In a country of 50+ million, I think people often feel powerless to change things, and that feeling means that we don’t try.

    But unlike in politics, (and as Theo said) there is no organised ‘we’ in social media. This might be a good thing if it can bypass that sense of powerlessness.

    For instance, I can think of lots of ways social media could help the environment and communities: car sharing, organising political campaigns, reducing waste through peer pressure, meeting your neighbours, cycling-to-work clubs, discussing alternative power sources, etc.

    And I think most people are willing to do a little bit for the environment as long as it doesn’t inconvenience them too much, and people will do more if they see their friends and neighbours doing more. If all those ‘little bits’ could be harnessed and amplified it might start to make a real difference.

    All those activities above already exist, but perhaps social media has the reach to make it feel like a powerful unified effort, rather than powerless isolated effort, and without having anybody dictating from above.

    Is that the sort of direction you had in mind Pete?

    Posted 27th January 2008 at 8:32 pm | Permalink
  15. Yes I think so. Certainly one of them.

    Transferring the power of communication into the hands of the many rather than the few seems to make sense give our needs at the beginning of the 21st century. And I say “our” because at the most basic level “we” (all 6 billion of us) share the same roof. We’re living in the same house.

    We have some significant challenges to deal with – poverty, disease, climate change etc. These problems are all global but they are also local. For example, I heard that about half of the UK’s carbon emissions come from energy that we use in our homes and day-to-day lives. So it seems what people do locally really can make a difference globally.

    While I think the mainly top-down systems which we inhabit have served us pretty well up to this point many seem to be starting to creak – a good example is the global financial system which just does not seem to be fit for purpose. My evidence is that despite the trillions in flowing around the world economy they don’t seem to be flowing where needed!

    And, yes, you are so right social media can make individuals and communities feel powerful again.

    Potentially social media can create “awareness” – allowing people to start to understand the problems and issues and challenges and impacts.

    Potentially social media supports “agency” – by providing access to the best knowledge and best practice to try and do stuff. It shows us the alternatives, what others have achieved and shows that better solutions are possible.

    And social media seems to offer the potential for “association” (ie supporting one another) – through a sense of community which often is the sense of sharing a problem then finding a solution with others.

    Posted 28th January 2008 at 10:37 am | Permalink
  16. Paul Hawken is one of my favourite reads. In this short article he talks of the discovery of what he calls the “largest social movement in all of history”.
    (To remake the world).

    I quote:

    “It is dispersed, inchoate, and fiercely independent.”

    “The movement can’t be divided because it is atomized—small pieces loosely joined. It forms, gathers, and dissipates quickly. ”

    If there isn’t a role for social media in supporting this movement I’d very surprised.

    Posted 30th January 2008 at 9:34 am | Permalink
  17. Pete thanks for the link, just finished reading it, excelent article.

    Posted 1st February 2008 at 5:24 pm | Permalink
  18. Joshua

    I really am not sure about the labelling ‘social media agency’. The more i think about it – the more I feel it does not cut the paper very well.

    This bubble could burst. ‘New Media’ is a dirty word these days from the burst bubble. And I can’t help but feel that the ‘social media’ bubble will just float away into the sky.

    Social media will grow and weave into our lives, and so what’s next?

    Putting all your eggs into the ‘social media’ basket is dangerous, it can make you look de riguer one day and old news the next.

    I think its important to own a broader space that encompasses ‘social media’ but makes you more of master of this strand of communication, not a slave to it.

    As a designer I respond. I absorb what culture is upto, really feel the pulse and produce something that should be felt by the audience and in turn they will want to engage in.

    For me – Responsive Design Media Agency (working title) works for me.

    The foundation of an agency is the ability to look outside and pick up on whats going on, have ideas, shape them, then make media/technology do something useful or inspire an audience.

    There again what’s wrong with design agency?

    Posted 3rd April 2008 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
  19. AJ


    Posted 4th April 2008 at 3:47 pm | Permalink