Monday, October 5, 2009

What is Social Media?

Social media is one of those phrases that many people think they should know because it combines two familiar words. You know what social means. After all, people are social beings, relying upon one’s abilities to interact with and influence others in order to survive. As a kid, your mother may have told you to”go outside and be social”. To be social is a desirable thing. The word connotes something good.

Now take the word media. In a traditional sense, media includes things such as newspapers, magazines and television. You might think of the NewTorkTimes, BusinessWeek or CNN, three media giants with a tremendous amount of influence in society. While the word media does conjure up images of news organizations, it also brings up impressions of how the news is delivered: via print, audio, video and photographs. Each is an important medium used to engage an audience by telling a compelling story or sharing important news.

Since the focus of this blog is business and not journalism, stop the train here for a moment, just long enough to point out that there has always been a powerful relationship between the traditional media and business. The media has always been particularly good at gathering people to read, watch, or listen to something of interest. Whether it is sports, finance, fashion or international politics, traditional media has something to offer you. Enter the people who advertise their products and services via commercials and print ads that accompany your favorite source of news. These advertisers use print, audio, video and photographs in an attempt to influence our behavior. They rely upon the traditional media to help them get closer to you and your money. It’s a symbiotic relationship that is generally accepted without question. You expect to get a sales pitch on every page and half a dozen commercial breaks during a broadcast.

Words, pictures, video and audio can inform and inspire, just as they can influence and incite. Humans like to know about the good, the bad and the ugly side of people, places and situations, as well as to share this information with others, often as quickly as possible.

In the past, neighbors, would meet on the corner and coworkers would meet at the water cooler to talk about and share what they read in the morning paper, heard on the evening news or learned from a friend of a friend at a party. Sometimes the conversation assumed life-and-death proportions and sometimes it was simply about a sale at a local store. But whatever it was, people listened and often responded.

Modern technology hasn’t obviated the need to meet on the corner or at the water cooler, but it has greatly increased the amount of information available to share. Most importantly, technology has allowed everyone to participate in creating and delivering information to family, friends and colleagues. Everyone has the ability to function as citizen journalists or market mavens. That is, you can capture a robbery at a local auto dealer on your camera-phone and send it to your local TV station within seconds. Or you can snap a few shots of the sporty new hybrid on the showroom floor and send it to your brother who’s trying to reduce his carbon footprint.

Thus, from a business perspective, social media is about enabling conversation. It is also about the ways that this conversation can be prompted, promoted and monetized. Definitions of social media and its cousin web2.0 appear later on this blog, but first we will take a look at the darker and brighter sides of social media.

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