Six Reasons “Social Media” needs a better name

“Social Media”: the term seems to be everywhere at once. Hordes of “gurus” “experts” and “consultants” are all over the Web and Twitter selling their expertise under the banner. But like “social networking”, pharm it’s an ugly term that is more often apologized for than explained. Today I’ll discuss why I think we’d all be better off without it. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about why we’re probably stuck with it (for now), and Wednesday, I’ll list and evaluate alternative terms to Social Media.


But for now: the problems

Problem 1: Nobody can agree on the definition

Even those that use “Social Media” can’t agree on how to use it. Robert Scoble managed to capture the early struggle and Joseph Thornley offers the best long-form definition I’ve seen. But he also captures the confused public perception by documenting the shifts on Wikipedia. Check out the difference between the Wiki-definition he captured last year, and the one that’s up there now (or whatever hour of today you read this – it changes that fast).

Social media are media designed to be disseminated through social interaction, created using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques. Social media supports the human need for social interaction… Wikipedia, (10:42 AM Sept. 14, 2009)

Pretty thin and circular. But most definitions are. Which may be one reason why…

Problem 2: People are avoiding the term.

Is that a definition or a very accurate comment?
From definition?Insightful comment? Both.

Last year, during my contract gig as Vice President Marketing, in which I helped my client Bluedrop Performance Learning launch their new online “learning management” tool, we had a massive internal debate about terminology. Basically, we wanted to tell the world we were an Internet-based tool that allowed users to create, share, and build communities around course content. In other words, we wanted to say we were doing “Social Media”, but nobody wanted to use that term.

I’ve heard the same debate online and offline, at volunteer organizations and family gatherings. More to the point, the loudest debates aren’t in the classroom or the chatroom, they’re in the boardroom, which brings me to…

Problem 3: Business and government aren’t buying it

The example I used above was a group of plugged-in technology professionals, and we didn’t want to use the term. But if Social Media are to reach their full potential as world-changing forces, they’ll have to “cross the chasm” by overcoming a lot of resistance from the laggards out there.

The granddaddy of all business-oriented Social Media  sites, Linked-In, doesn’t use the term Social Media in it its About Us copy – or anywhere on its site. Instead, it defines itself as “an interconnected network of experienced professionals”.

The news has been brimming lately with stories like NFL Bans Twitter and the US Marines Ban Twitter, MySpace, Facebook. Of course, they all cite security reasons as their primary reason for doing so. But an underlying cause is the widespread perception that Social Media a) can’t be serious and b) could possibly even be subversive – both of which are underlined by the term “Social Media” itself.

Problem 4:  Social means “unproductive”

Think about the terms: “social time” “social conversations” “socializing” – all of these are deeply unproductive-sounding words. They sound like “fun” “friends” and “frivolity”. And of course, the two “killer apps” that defined the field, MySpace and Facebook,  were all about those activities.

It is very difficult to use the term in a “serious” setting like an office or business-oriented Web tool. If I had suggested we refer to CoursePark as a Social Media Tool for Business, I would have gotten laughed out of the room. It sounds like a contradiction in terms.

Reason 5: Social means “radical / left-leaning / subversive”

A client of mine, the Ottawa-based think-tank Citizens for Public Justice, studiously avoids the term “Social Justice”, choosing instead “Public Justice” to define its area of concern. Why? The “Social” part of “Social Justice” strongly implies “left-leaning” which limits the group’s ability to talk to governments, supporters, and media across the political spectrum.

Recently, the New Democratic Party of Canada flirted with the idea of changing their name, but never considered the most historically accurate descriptor for the people they represent: “Social Democrat”. Why? Because they want to move to the middle politically, and “Social” is a loaded word.

This is really sad, because, the sense of “social” meaning “shared values / agreements / practices between humans” is really powerful, positive, and politically neutral.

Reason 6: S+M

One word: Sadomasochism. That sums up two things for me: a) a big drawback to the abbreviation SM that is now even more frequently used and abused than the full term – particularly on Twitter. And speaking of using and abusing: b) I feel sado-masochistic for being part of the system that continues to spout this term off, when it is hurting us all more than helping.

So where do we go from here?

Okay Dennis, so you’ve convinced the planet that there’s a problem (planet, this is where you nod along). Now what? So should we go ahead and rebrand Social Media?

  • Tomorrow: Why we’re stuck with the term Social Media (for Now)
  • Wednesday: Helpful terms to use instead of Social Media.

7 thoughts on “Six Reasons “Social Media” needs a better name”

  1. I think I may owe a credit to Danny Brown, but “Conversational Media” has much to recommend it. The excellent ad agency Gyro:HSR refers to “energized word of mouth” which really speaks to the strategy’s strength. Hope this helps.

    1. Wow, I’ll have to track down the credit for that first one for Wednesday. It’s excellent and captures the two-way nature of the media nicely. The second, I get, (and I’ll include on Wednesday) but there’s a bit too much spin on that ball, so I’m not quite swinging.

  2. There is nothing wrong with Social Media as a name, the issue here is strictly generational: whomever is making decisions in the private or public sector and is affraid of the term “social media” is simply diverting the blame from the tool to its name. LinkedIn defines itself in the proper terms: it’s not really social media, it is actually a network of profesionals.

    1. Oh, I wouldn’t entirely blame the term “Social Media” either (he says, after spending a long-ish blog post doing just that), because I agree that the discomfort with “Social Media” is also generational – in the sense of decision makers not being “native” with the tools. But the name sets the stage for the conversation, and my point here is that it may be hurting more than helping.

  3. Dennis, multimedia, rich media and interactive media are all terms that have similar amorphous meanings and uses.

    IMHO the ‘social’ prefix refers to how the media propogates. So if your intent is to solicit alternatives… here’s mine: shared media.

    1. You missed “Viral Media” which captures the propogation, but sounds a bit too passive and unintentional – even a bit mystical.

      Shared Media is one of the ones I’ve been noodling on as a solid replacement – (Sharing / Share / Shared?).

      You also make a good point: that “media” itself is an amorphus blob of baggage-laden meaning, and perhaps that’s one of the big problems. Can there be an unambiguous term with “media” in it?

      Perhaps the “medium” is the messer… (apologies to McLuhan.

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