July 5, 2008

Social Media and Online Communities

Are social media simply online communities?

Over a decade ago, when I created an "Online Interpersonal Communication" course for UMass' nascent "CyberEd" program it was meant to simply be an introduction for neophytes. It wasn't a credit course, and it wasn't very difficult to create. I introduced people to the details needed to communicate effectively in email, Usenet, MUDs, and other technologies of the time. However, I also made it a goal for them to learn the online mores that had formed ("netiquette").

In addition to students that were there just to pick up some Internet savvy, there were already thinking about how to create and maintain online communities. For example, some of my students were, themselves, educators who already worked for organizations which specialized in distance learning. We had class discussions on the issue, and the class did double-duty as discussion forum and experimental example of a very small online community.

During this time I also started participating in online communities with the specific intention of observing what held them together, and what patterns of interaction seemed to repeat. My work took me away from teaching, so my online community use lapsed more into entertainment than research, but I kept it in the back of my mind.

Today, I hear the term "social media" used frequently in reference to online communications such as blogs, microblogs, image sharing sites, etc. Why has "social media" appeared, and is it the same as "online communities?" I don't object to new terms for old concepts, but the motives behind new language interest me. I think "social media" is marketing for "online communities" although "online communities" might be more accurate.

One way to tell if two classifications are the same is to run the check: for classification X and classification Y, if every X is a Y AND every Y is an X, then X and Y are essentially the same. If it works only in one direction, then one is a subset of the other. This allows you to test X and Y casually without even a precise definition of either, but of course definitions will make your case stronger.

If the two classifications are not exactly the same, the similarity can be judged based on the quality of the examples which break the test.

For example, I believe that every online community is a form of social media, if we accept the Wikipedia definition of social media:

Social media is an umbrella term that defines the various activities that integrate technology, social interaction, and the construction of words, pictures, videos and audio. This interaction, and the manner in which information is presented, depends on the varied perspectives and "building" of shared meaning among communities, as people share their stories, and understandings.

...then we'll see that a long list of online communities qualify as social media. However, by the definition of social media, you might stretch it to include a collaborative paper newsletter. If you said that this is social media but is not an online community, I'd probably question your application of the definition of "social media." Non-online examples of social media may be possible, and if they exist they are not commonly referred to as social media.

Is "social media" a better term than online communities? I think it does serve some purpose. Its use of the word "media" contrasts the products of social media with the product of traditional, monolithic corporate media. And "social" defines how it is different, implying that this media emerges from social interactions.

Ironically, the use of the term "social media" may be a subconscious effort to give a professional sheen to the products of online communities at the same time social media seeks to distance itself from traditional media. The word "media" implies, to most people, a certain professionalism, even if they have come to criticize "the media." "A member of the media" still certainly carries with it a strong implication of professional credentials.

Perhaps the biggest distinction, for me, in the two terms is not in their ultimate meaning, but in the emphasis. "Social media" is a type of media (modified by "social.") Online communities are a type of community (modified by "online.") Thus, in social media the stress is on the stuff that these people generate, and perhaps the system that generates it (the way it is generated) rather than on the social/community/personal part of it.

Technorati : , , ,

Posted by James at July 5, 2008 4:32 PM
Create Social Bookmark Links

Well, it was fun stepping out of one "community" and meeting you in real life last night.

Your daughter is right, it was a good party.

Posted by: BostonMaggie at July 6, 2008 9:49 AM

Well, this is bizarre. When you tweeted about social media I thought you meant media that is social; I didn't realize you were referring to a formal entity. I immediately thought of people using CB radio and ham radio to communicate; some channels became hangouts for "regulars" to form loose communities.

Also, pre-Internet, there were clubs for sci-fi fans and other enthusiasts to "meet" via quarterly member-produced magazines, newsletters, etc. I suppose these would probably sound lame to people who have only ever known the Internet, but back in the day when they were all we had, they were a great way to "meet" enthusiasts from all over the world.

Posted by: Julie at July 6, 2008 6:14 PM

It's not the lameness that I think is the dividing line, but rather (I think) that a threshold is not reached until you have more communication than jut a newsletter.

That's not to say I don't think what you describe could fit some definitions of social media, but I think it is significant that most such newsletters were mostly produced/organized by a very small number of individuals who may also have acted as editors. This is much more like traditional media than what people are calling social media today (even though it is arguably more social and even more personal.)

Posted by: James at July 6, 2008 7:27 PM

Copyright © 1999-2007 James P. Burke. All Rights Reserved