January 2007 - Ask the Tech Council

Defining Social Media

By Babak Afshar

Q: What Is Social Media?

A: A new form of media has emerged online, generally referred to as social media. As many things nascent and net born, there is no cookie-cutter definition of what social media is, but the essence of what it does can be summarized as a group of technologies that share certain traits. These collective attributes of social media are:

Democratic: Social media is based on participation of contributors and users in an open and transparent environment. The medium’s audiences are constantly contributing to the message. Through feedback and open participation, social media effectively eliminates the traditional media boundaries that separate spectators from the spectacle. To be a spectator or a lurker is discouraged while participating, voting and making your voice heard is the goal.

Collaborative: The most striking difference with traditional media’s unidirectional broadcast of content is that social media is bidirectional; a two-way conversation dependent on user-generated content. If traditional media takes the form of diction by broadcaster to the consumer, social media is a back-and-forth cooperative discussion. As a collaborative tool, social media affords time-shifting and place-shifting while presenting a common view of the content to all participants.

Communal: Social media is community oriented. Whereas traditional media aims to communicate to individuals and households, social media tries to build communities of interest based on quick and effective communication. It provides a place to gather with anyone, anywhere, at anytime sharing any common interest. Communities of interest exist and proliferate around any concern or curiosity that two or more people share.

Interconnected: Although the early World Wide Web introduced the notion of hypertextual connectivity, social media takes that one step further. It accelerates the speed and simplicity for gathering and presentation of seemingly disparate technologies such as audio, video, telephony and print all in one place intertwined for instant participation, conversation, collaboration, syndication and community building.

Although these characteristics may sound very familiar individually and, in fact, they are, they have never been brought together collectively with technologies that are so accessible, inexpensive and relatively simple to use in order to serve what has been called the long tail.

The long tail originally discussed in Wired magazine in 2004 pointed out the increasing relevance of smaller distribution channels of more varied products for longer periods of time to a greater number of niche communities as opposed to the short head of traditional mass marketing of a single product for all, in a quick burst of time (see figure below). The long tail of social media as a medium becomes the message through user interaction. Social media technologies fall in the long tail of this curve in that they build communities of trust among loyal members who contribute as well as create content.

Various forms of social media exist, all of which cannot be covered at once. But some of the main forms we can discuss here include blogs, podcasts, social nets, folksonomies, wikis, and some web aggregators and mashups. Almost all types of social media bring various forms of media such as audio, video, text and so on together and make it simpler for a community of users to interact with the content as well as with one another.

The most well known of the technologies of social media, blogs, essentially chronicle on a regularly updated basis, the common thoughts, interests and actions of an individual or a group of people. Blogs or web logs evolved from daily updated online journals kept by some internet users in the early ’90s who later began to develop code to automate their daily publishing process. The new publishing systems were soon to be known as blogs, their authors as bloggers and the process as blogging. The blogosphere refers to the discourse generated and discussed in the blogging universe. Blog readers are what make this form of technology a type of social media; the readers are active contributors to the conversation by freely commenting and continuing the discussion on any blog post, often with the author of the post as well as other readers. An example of blog is the newly launched Tech Council blog located at www.drtvtechnology.org.

As a particular form of audio narrow-casting, podcasts are similiar to blogs in that they can be syndicated and users can subscribe to the audio stream of the podcast to receive regular updates automatically. A podcast is distinguished from other forms of downloadable or streaming audio files in that the subscribed podcast is automatically downloaded to a device using standardized feeds. Once the user has subscribed to the syndicated feed of a podcast, he or she can choose the type of device to play back the audio file. The podango.com website offers an array of daily podcasts for feed based free subscription.

Social nets refer to online social networking communities built around individual nodes and their relationship or degrees of separation to other points or nodes on the social network. Key individuals placed as a nexus point around which a cluster of users gather on the network tend to have higher relevance and greater sociocultural clout on the social net. Examples can be social networks formed around particular interest-such as MySpace’s initial focus on independent music and partying, or around particular institutions such as LinkedIn’s focus on work and business networks, or Facebook’s focus on education. Another aspect of social networking is its unintended effect of regional popularity, which forms a new type of social net as it grows. For instance the popularity of Google’s orkut grew exponentially higher in Brazil and Iran as compared to other regions of the world. Later when Iran censored the site, orkut became somewhat synonymous with a Brazil-centric social network.

Folksonomies form another type of social media by collectively labeling and categorizing content in an open environment for later retrieval by any user of that content. Folksonomies stand in sharp contrast to the other human endeavor of knowledge organization known as taxonomy. In a folksonomy, the authors and users are typically one and the same, while the author who tags his or her creation often creates the content. This labeling or tagging process generates new types of databases with higher relevancy factor, as its most critical user or creator tags each piece of content. These tags and labels are generally shared knowledge among users of a particular folksonomy. Thus, the generated databases simply further searching, retrieval, discovery, navigation and even repurposing of the content. Famous examples include del.icio.us for social bookmarking of websites and flickr.com for photo sharing.

Wikis (pronounced we-keys) are content management systems that allow for easy reading, writing, deleting and general editing of the available content without necessarily having to register as a new user.

Its goal is easy collaborative authorship, and it accomplishes this by allowing collective writing to become an act of exceedingly simplified interaction within a web browser. As with other forms of social media, all wikis are user-generated and user-maintained. The best example of this is the free online encyclopedia located at wikipedia.org.

There are other forms of social media such as mashups and aggregators that collect various sources of news and information and present it in a different, yet useful manner. These are sites such as digg.com (social news), popurls.com (popular urls), deals.com (shopping deals), retrevo.com (product reviews), originalsignal.com (blog aggregator) and the mashup site mappr.com. They essentially gather information and repurpose it using open programming standards or the notion of “wisdom of the crowd.” Both group intelligence and an open exchange of information on these websites lead to a more integrated web application, and therefore, a better social media.

All of these forms of social media are shaped around extremely passionate communities and individuals who are experts within the community in which they participate. In my experience, I have found time and again that the loyal long tail of this participation has significant value for the advertising world by allowing the wisdom of the crowd or the community to be a part of the conversation that forms the message being delivered. Whether the message is in the form of an expert business blog, a daily podcast, greater presence and recognition in a social net or a particular folksonomy, content generators or users are the first and foremost audience whose conversation should inform marketers, and not the other way around. If advertisers listen to these communities before they broadcast a message of one-size-fits-all mediums, then they will be duly rewarded by the loyal long tail of the communities in which they want to become a part.

Babak Afshar is part of the digital media assets management team at Capital Media Inc. and is chairman of ERA’s Technology Council. He can be reached at [email protected].


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