What is social media?


I get asked this question often. This post is an attempt to answer the question.

Many of us think that Facebook is social media. Truth is that Facebook is a major social media application. Its impact is huge. Of 2.1 billion people who use a web browser — 1 Billion+ people are on Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg recently announced his plan for bringing internet access to all. Also read Zuck’s mission statement “Is Connectivity A Human Right?”

But Facebook is not social media; it is a part of it.

Media (plural for medium) is a group of tools used to store and deliver information or data. Traditionally news media (newspaper, periodicals, and magazines) and mass media (TV and now web) have represented it.

Social media are media for social interaction. Any media that enable social interaction in any form are social media. This interaction is enabled by;

  1. Participation (in form of commenting, providing feedback, creating and posting content); and
  2. Conversation (ability to converse with other members of the websites.

Social media often provide a feature to form a community. On Facebook you have brand communities, and communities of celebrity fans. It is evolving as we go further.

Social media is two-way. It is not – consume only (read only); it provides an opportunity to consume and create (read-write).

“Social media is a group of websites, tools and applications that enables people to create and share content and enable them to participate in communication.”

How is it different from traditional media?

Think about it can you add something to a newspaper or print magazine while you read?

Off-late advances in visual computing have made some interaction possible with print publications; still the newspaper or print publication does not change — interaction happens on a different medium.

Take the blog (social media) you are reading right now. You can comment on the article you are reading. Add to the conversation, share your thoughts. It is the media that I created but you have an opportunity to write your thoughts here in real time.

While watching a TV show it is not possible to add your thoughts to the program. In social media it is possible. While watching a video of YouTube you can add your thoughts in form of comments. You can also create your own video and post it on YouTube. That is social media. When you post on a friends’ Facebook wall that is participation.

Email is also social in nature

Gmail is a social network where members of this community can interact (email) and chat/video chat.

What all is there?

Social media consists of variety of applications; major ones are listed below;

Social networks

Facebook we have already talked about.

There are social networks (networking websites) big and small, old and new. There is Twitter; which is a micro blogging platform which social networking at core. Yammer is a popular twitter-like application for enterprise.

From the older social networking websites you have — MySpace. Before MySpace there was Friendster. Recently MySpace has launched a new interface but it is currently on a downward curve.

These are large social networks with global appeal. Then there are large networks popular within a country or regions like MyYearBook and Orkut.

LinkedIn is a popular social network for professionally oriented.

Location based services like Foursquare and Gowala are networks focused on location based services.

Then you have;

  • Message boards, forums (this is first place where elements of social media emerged)
  • Blogs earlier known as online journals which came before social networking (popular platforms are Word press, BlogSpot, Tumblr, Posterous etc.).
  • Social bookmarking websites (Magnolia, Delicious): It lets you save your favorite links, web pages for future reference. This feature is a step-ahead from standard bookmarking feature in web browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari etc.). Here when you log in into your social bookmarking account, your bookmarks are accessible from anywhere and you can also see who else has bookmarked the same links as you.
  • Content Communities like Flickr (for photo sharing and interacting with those with similar interests). On Flickr you can also post videos but it is better known for photos. YouTube is the mother of all video sharing websites. There are also communities like Digg and Reddit which are news based. Slideshare and Scribd are built around sharing presentations and documents.
  • Virtual World: For eg; Second Life, where you can create avatars or alternate personas. Social Gaming applications like Farmville also have the same premise.
  • Gaming Communities: communities build around popular MMPORG games like World of Warcraft etc. and Xbox players.
  • Wikis – Wikipedia is the clear leader here. Wikis let you edit content online. This content is then consumed by other online users. This is also known as crowdsourcing. There are also applications like PBWiki where you can create your own wikis for personal consumption or collaboration.

Further, social media is something;

  • Which could be altered in real time?
  • Where People could get into conversations

Think about this blog — as an example of media that is social. Any post of this blog can be updated. You can comment on any post/article and share your thoughts and add to the conversation. In my article I can link to any other article media that is found interesting. If somebody else finds interesting can be linked to or tweeted.

It is not entirely new

Social media is not something radical or entirely new.

The features of two way interaction online have existed since the days of UseNet and Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and these existed more than 30 years ago.

Blogs (web logs) in their current form have also existed for more than a decade now. During initial days there was a lot of resistance from mainstream media to accept blogs as a credible medium of communication. Off late mainstream media has accepted the power of interaction that blogs provide and accepted them wholeheartedly.

Off late the lines of traditional media and social media are blurring as mainstream media outlets like NYTimes, CNN have accepted the opportunity social media provides. They continue to incorporate many features of social media in their online offerings.

Social media in real life

You are consuming or contributing to social media;

  • When you like a Facebook page
  • When you write blog comments
  • When you are bookmarking a page you like on delicious
  • Posting a video on YouTube
  • Tweeting

One distinct feature of social media is interaction.


Now-a-days traditional media outlets also are incorporating features of interactivity to attract the audience which is used to sharing and interacting via social web.


Media will continue to evolve as technology and our usage of available time changes.

The pace at which technology advances is also increasing. New ones are being created by the day. But you need not sleep over every new form on new social media application unless it is your business. The really useful ones will stand out for you to notice.

Hope this helped. What will you like to add to this conversation?

Image Credits


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