Social Media: Neither Social Nor Media. Discuss.

This weekend I was in Montreal for PodCamp Montreal, an event bringing together people interested in social media. Most sessions (at least, the ones I attended) took the format of presentation and then Q & A. Sunday morning, however, the session Is Social Media Really a Social Media? brought out the true spirit of podcamp conversation with a contentious discussion that delved into the semantics of the term. Pier-Luc Pettitclerc, IT Director at Commun, brought in his boss Martin Ouellette, a traditional ad agency owner, to battle out the question.

First off, Ouellette argued that “social” means people coming together (primarily in person) for a common reason. For example, a group of people attending a hockey game or a rock concert. His definition of the term “social” sits closely with community, has a many-to-many connotation, and does not take into account one-on-one personal relationships.

His term “media” he defined as a channel for advertising. He argued that when the term “social networking” was replaced by “social media” in popular use, advertising was introduced. Although I don’t agree with his definitions, he may have a point there about how advertising has come into play in these channels.

After much debate around the term, local venture technologist Sylvain Carle argued that it was perhaps the combination of the two terms that was problematic. Julien Smith, co-author of Trust Agents, maintained the conversation was a red herring, that the real question was whether social media is important and why are we using it. Even a long-time student of Marshall McLuhan weighed in supporting Smith’s viewpoint. [Sept. 15 update: the McLuhan student is actually Michael Hinton–check out his site Marshall & Me]. In the end, Ouellette conceded his definition of “social” may be inaccurate, but his idea of “media” remained intact.

I do agree the term “social media” itself is problematic. How can media in itself be social? It is neutral. It is people who are social. And yet we have terms like “new media” and “emerging media” but none of these are satisfactory. And in business settings such as law firms, the term “social” implies that it is somehow the antonym to “professional” (in this context it is not). At some point we have to agree to disagree, clarify what we are talking about when we use any of these terms, and carry on.

It demonstrated to me that sometimes newer terms–such as “social media”, “knowledge management” and “information management” are in flux and defining them can be difficult. If your client is talking about these things, be sure to ask them what they mean, and perhaps give you examples. Depending on the industry, social media might mean Facebook and Twitter. To others it means blogs and podcasts. And to still others it means content such as audio, video and photographs. And no doubt there are many other ways to slice and dice the meaning.

For those so inclined, the video session is below. I warn you: the language is NOT work friendly. And you might want an hour of your life back. You’ve been warned.

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