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Why 'Media' with 'Social'

A post by a colleague got me thinking about the phrase 'social media' as the lexeme to describe the technologies of web-based self-publishing that have led to unprecedented connection, conversation, engagement and community.

The provenance of the phrase is evidently to contrast user-generated news and comment with mainstream or industrial media in which the 'means of production' to use the Marxist description (also favoured by cultural commentator Andrew Keen) are owned by corporations not the individuals who create the content. The debate about whether 'social media' is the right term has been going on for at least two years.

The problem I have is less with the 'social' element of the lexeme than with 'media' to describe the interface, although a colleague did comment the other day that it would make it easier to sell social media as a communications strategy to companies if it didn't contain the word 'social' which smacks of people-driven rather than business-driven decision making . . . which is the point of course.

Let's do a little academic geekery here. Dictionary.com defines media as "the means of communication, as radio and television, newspapers, and magazines, that reach or influence people widely." (The 'reach' is becoming questionable and the 'influence' declining. But that's the subject of a future post.) The Online Etymology Dictionary suggest a derivation from the "notion of 'intermediate agency,' a sense first found around 1605." According to Spiritus Temporis, media refers to "those organized means of dissemination of fact, opinion, entertainment, and other information."

You see the trend: The word 'media' has about it the notion of a channel by which you deliver something to people, not interconnect with them. Some, well many, communications and marketing people have a hard time switching mental models when it comes to assessing social tools for online interaction. They fixate on the term 'media' and apply old public relations patterns and benchmarks to social media strategies.

Doc Searls (co-author of the groundbreaking book The Cluetrain Manifesto), for one, objects strenuously to the limitations and misdirection prompted by the 'media' terminology. I do to . . . but the battle for a new conceptual model may already be lost as usage soon drives definition. Even though the conceits of social computing tools, social interaction software or social engagement strategies seem to collocate better the important elements of the digitally-driven cultural revolution, they still aren't really there yet.

So, can we revive the two-year-old or longer debate? Or has it been resolved and I am just out of the loop?

The Power of Apologies

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