Beyond “tweets” and “friends”: the meaning of social media

I was not surprised when I learned that the term “retweet” was added to the 12th Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. New words born of the social media revolution are everywhere. It’s an odd fact of our social media world that you can be “unfriended” on Facebook and not even know it. If you’re interested, you can read a discourse on the politics of unfriending here: http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=4647588319&topic=4080

Treatises on the significance of social media are abundant. A search of Amazon’s book listings for “social media” turned up 102,071 paperback titles, 46,597 hardcover titles, 1,461 Kindle edition titles and 24 audio editions. The majority of these are how-to books for business: marketing and branding advice, tips on moneymaking and metrics for measuring success. Apparently, one can create a business out of social media by writing a book on the subject!

I won’t offer a how-to on the business opportunities present in social media; you should be pursuing this on your own already. What interests me is the broader implications of the social media; how is it different than previous media, how is it impacting our lives and where is it going? That’s what brought me to the book by Erik Qualman, “Socialnomics: how social media transforms the way we live and do business.”

Qualman, a marketing executive at EF Education and an MBA professor at Hult International Business School, sets himself a high bar with his title. However, I’m not sure he reaches his goal, even in the revised and updated edition.

Let me start with the positive. The core of Qualman’s theory of social media is found in the introduction where he states: “Socialnomics is the value created and shared via social media and its efficient influence on outcomes (economic, political and relational, etc.). Or more simply put, it’s Word of Mouth on digital steroids.”

I think his idea is basically correct, although the term “socialnomics” and the “value created” assertion should be debated. Social media transforms activities previously associated with word-of-mouth communications (exchanges between people that multiply) and accelerates them exponentially beyond anything previously possible. What we are living through is the evolution from simple verbal contact between individuals in one location to (potentially) a worldwide exchange between all individuals in all locations.

To illustrate this point, let us look at communications technology from the time of Gutenberg up to the present. When comparing the creator/recipient spectrum of social media to all previous technologies (dates subject to review), the transformation becomes apparent:

Social media, originating with what we know as Web 2.0 (online user-generated content, the Wiki phenomenon or web-as-participant-platform), has changed forever communications between people. We are no longer restricted to information from establishment sources or individual contact between our limited circle of friends and family; everyone can now simultaneously consume and create in the worldwide media-scape.

What Qualman does next is review, through case studies, the ways that this alteration in communications has been used, especially in business. He gives positive and negative examples. He examines the use of social media in the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Many of these stories are interesting.

But this is also where the book falls down. His case studies are anecdotal and poorly researched. His conclusions are platitudinous and silly. Qualman has written an entire chapter called, “Social Media=Braggadocian Behavior” to explain that people use social media to compete for “who’s doing the coolest thing.” In my opinion, this only serves to reinforce negative perceptions of social media as a medium to post mundane daily activities. Of course, this is happening; much the same as it does with letter writing or telephone calls. This fact does little to reveal the underlying significance of what is happening.

YouTube, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are the names of the services most associated with social media. In just a few short years, hundreds of millions (even billions in aggregate) worldwide are using these technologies to communicate in entirely new ways. We need to understand social media in the context of the breakthroughs and limitations of its predecessors in order to take advantage of the opportunities that it represents.

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