I posed a question on Twitter that cuts to the heart of all of this stuff:

What is social media? Seriously, what defines social media from any other form of media?

Lots of folks responded.

bigguyd: @cspenn interactions. SM is a two way street where traditional media is one way, typically.
comedy4cast: @cspenn We all wear colorful hats!
discordia77: @cspenn other forms of media have “experts” telling the information, social media is interactive between all elements involved in the story.
seanrehder: @cspenn asks “define social media.” Social = peer and media = information. Social media = information gained from our peers vs. “the man.”
sizzlemaker: @cspenn Media–such as newspapers or broadcasts–is one way. Someone producing content to give you. Social media allows you to interact.
tommorris: @cspenn Nothing. ‘Social media’ is a term used by marketeers for just about everything. It’s lost all meaning. It’s a pointless buzzword.
keithbooe: @cspenn higher level of real time (or near) interaction and direct user involvement than traditional media?
mlseaton: @cspenn the amount of people claiming to be experts or gurus! That is pretty much what defines it.
Ed: Essentially @cspenn Built in sharing. Conducive both by design, and user intent
JoyHaynes: @cspenn For me, real time conversation and connections to other people.
theelusivefish: @cspenn imho, there are 2 things distinguishing social media from the rest – low barriers to entry and the ability for any to participate
kristenmchugh22: @cspenn SM is both expression & engagement. There are some ppl wielding infl for good&selfish int., but not engaging on meaningful scale.
heykeenan: @cspenn the connection makes social media different from other media.

Here’s what I think defines social media apart from any other form of media: Metcalfe’s Law.

From Wikipedia:

Metcalfe’s law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2). First formulated in this form by George Gilder in 1993, and attributed to Robert Metcalfe in regard to Ethernet, Metcalfe’s law was originally presented, circa 1980, not in term of users, but rather of “compatibly communicating devices” (for example, fax machines).

Something can be termed social media when its core value relies on the network effect – Metcalfe’s Law.

For example, is a blog post a form of social media? No. The value of the blog post is the same whether one person reads it or one million people read it. Its value is inherent in and of itself. The same is true for a podcast, a TV show, a commercial, a newspaper, etc.

Contrast that with a bulletin board, a call-in radio show, Twitter, discussion forums, comments on a blog post, Facebook, etc. The core value that these forms of media deliver relies on Metcalfe’s Law – the more people who use them, the more valuable they are. The more social they are. The core value diminishes with fewer people and ultimately, the product or service has no inherent value.

When you need to develop an understanding of whether something or not falls in the social sphere, examine careful what its value is, and how the impact of more people changes its value. If the value of the item, network, service, or thing is independent of participation, if Metcalfe’s Law does not drive its core value, it’s not social – and that’s perfectly okay. A well-made hammer’s value is not reliant on the number of people who buy and use it.

If the same product, service, etc. has its value completely unravel if Metcalfe’s Law were applied in reverse – taking away people from it – then it’s social, and requires people to generate its value; the more people who generate value, the more value it has.

This also means that some aspects of “traditional media” are inherently social – call-in radio shows, the classifieds in newspapers, even a corkboard in the employee breakroom.

Three things for marketers to think about: if something isn’t social by design, that’s fine. Don’t try to force it to be social, because it won’t fit. A bouquet of flowers and a perfect sunset can’t Twitter, and never should. Instead focus your efforts on using a different marketing model that works with whatever the core value of your product or service is.

If something “traditional” is social by design in your work already, bringing it online will vastly accelerate its growth and value thanks to how easily socially-powered things spread online.

When your boss, client, friend, neighbor, or kid asks you to make something social (because social media is the shiny object of the day) ask them this: do you want to create something which [a] has no value of its own and [b] is solely reliant on the temperament of the crowd for its value, knowing that one screw-up can destroy everything and leave you with nothing of value?

Personally, I’d ask them instead whether they want to create something that has so much value inherent to it that others can’t help but talk about it and promote it for you in a social context.

What defines social media for you?

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