So, What Is Social Media?
Rather than define the term using a bunch of boring jargon that would probably only complicate things further, perhaps best way to get a clearer understanding of it is to break it down into simpler terms. To start, let’s look at each word individually.
The “social” part: refers to interacting with other people by sharing information with them and receiving information from them.
The “media” part: refers to an instrument of communication, like the internet (while TV, radio and newspapers are examples of more traditional forms of media).
Okay, so from these two separate terms, we can pull a basic definition together:Social media are web-based communication tools that enable people to interact with each other by both sharing and consuming information.
Yes, it’s a broad definition–but keep in mind that social media is a very broad term. This is likely as specific as we can get without zeroing in too much on a more specific subcategory of social media.
Common Social Media Features
The following list of common features are dead giveaways of a social media site.
If you’re questioning whether a particular site could be classified as social or not, try looking for at least one of these features.
User accounts: If a site allows visitors to create their own accounts that they can log into, then that’s a good sign there’s going to be social interaction. You can’t really share information or interact with others online without doing it through a user account.
Profile pages: Since social media is all about communication, a profile page is often necessary to represent an individual. It often includes information about the individual user, like a profile photo, bio, website, feed of recent posts, recommendations, recent activity and more.
Friends, followers, groups, hashtags and so on: Individuals use their accounts to connect with other users. They can also use them to subscribe to certain forms of information.
News feeds: When users connect with other users on social media, they’re basically saying, “I want to get information from these people.” That information is updated for them in real-time via their news feed.
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Personalization: Social media sites usually give users the flexibility to configure their user settings, customize their profiles to look a specific way, organize their friends or followers, manage the information they see in their news feeds and even give feedback on what they do or don’t want to see.
Notifications: Any site or app that notifies users about specific information is definitely playing the social media game. Users have total control over these notifications and can choose to receive the types of notifications that they want.
Information updating, saving or posting: If a site or an app allows you to post absolutely anything, with or without a user account, then it’s social! It could be a simple text-based message, a photo upload, a YouTube video, a link to an article or anything else.
Like buttons and comment sections: Two of the most common ways we interact on social media are via buttons that represent a “like” plus comment sections where we can share our thoughts.
Review, rating or voting systems: Besides liking and commenting, lots of social media sites and apps rely on the collective effort of the community to review, rate and vote on information that they know about or have used. Think of your favorite shopping sites or movie review sites that use this social media feature.
What’s the Difference Between Social Media and Social Networking?
As mentioned earlier, a lot of people user the terms social media and social networking interchangeably as if they mean the exact same thing. Although the difference is subtle, they’re not the same. Social networking is really a subcategory of social media.
The easiest way to understand the difference between social media and social networking is by thinking about the terms “media” and “networking” separately. Media refers to the information you’re actually sharing–whether it’s a link to an article, a video, an animated GIF, a PDF document, a simple status update or anything else.
Networking, on the other hand, has to do with who your audience is and the relationships you have with them. Your network can include people like friends, relatives, colleagues, anyone from your past, current customers, mentors and even complete strangers.
They certainly overlap, which is why it gets confusing. For example, you can share media with your social network to gather likes and comments–a form of social networking. But you can also just upvote a link on Reddit, which is a social media platform, to help out the community and give your say in the matter without any intention of building relationships with other users.
Still confused? Try to think of social media like fruit. Apples, bananas, oranges, grapes, berries, melons and pineapples are all part of the broader fruit category the same way that social networking, social news, social bookmarking, wikis, blogs and private web messaging are part of the broader social media category.
Are Traditional Media Also Social Media?
Traditional media was mentioned earlier on in this article just to demonstrate broader examples of media, but don’t be fooled into thinking that TV, radio and newspapers are a part of social media. At least not quite yet entirely. The line drawn between the two is slowly thinning as each continues to evolve.
Social media doesn’t just give you information, but interacts with you while giving you that information. This interaction can be as simple as asking for your comments or letting you vote on an article, or it can be as complex as Flixster recommending movies to you based on the ratings of other people with similar interests.
Think of regular media as a one-way street where you can read a newspaper or listen to a report on television, but you have very limited ability to give your thoughts on the matter. Social media, on the other hand, is a two-way street that gives you the ability to communicate too.
Are Blogs a Part of Social Media?
Copyblogger published an interesting article several years ago, making the argument that blogs are indeed social media, despite the fact that people tend to put them in a category all on their own these days. In fact, blogs are one of the oldest forms of social media that dominated the web long before we were friending and following everyone on social networks.
The key features that make blogs part of social media are their user accounts, comment sections and blog networks. Tumblr, Medium, WordPress and Blogger are just a few examples of big blog platforms that have very active community blog networks.
What Does the Future Hold for Social Media?
It’s difficult to predict anything exact, but if one thing can be said about the future of social media, it will probably be more personalized and less noisy. Over-sharing will be less of a problem and filtering out irrelevant information will become a stronger trend.
Snapchat is a social media platform that’s really at the forefront of social media evolution. Rather than blasting out updates for all our friends and followers to see, we use Snapchat more like we communicate in real life–with specific people only at specific times.