The coming demise of ‘social media’ (the term, that is)


Despite using it in our company’s marketing material (hey, we know a thing or two about search and marketing), I don’t like the term “social media.” I dislike it for the same reason I never liked the term “Web 2.0.” As I wrote in a 2005 blog post, “When a term starts to mean everything, it means nothing.” (And admit it, doesn’t “social media” sound like something that reports on parties in the Hamptons and Palm Beach?)

Terms like “Web 2.0” and “user-generated-content” and “social media” come and go. They may make sense when they are first used to describe a narrow activity or trend. But soon, they are hijacked by marketers who slap the term on things they are selling and try to turn the term into a product.

Web 2.0 (which, by the way, started out as a term that meant, roughly, what social media connotes today) was, without a doubt, the most hijacked term ever. Those who came up with the term may have known what the term meant. However, it soon became a bullet-point in sales sheets for products that had nothing to do with what its originators thought Web 2.0 meant. And it soon became a term to convey that a product wasn’t around during the debacle of the dot-bombing Web 1.0 — and it used fonts that had letters with rounded edges.

The term “social media” is heading for that same cliff.


As I tweeted yesterday, on the panel selector for next year’s South by Southwest Interactive, of the 2,000 nominated panels, 1,118 have the word “social” used in the panel name or description. To me, that says “everything is social.” And when everything is social, using the word “social” in the description is understood and therefore redundant. (Do you still say “World Wide” before saying “Web”? Hyper before link?)

More disturbing is the use by product vendors who are selling “social media” as a tool, product, technology or platform. (And yes, I include myself in this list.)

I just returned from the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives, a gigantic convention of people who run some of the best known trade and service organizations in the country. Like SXSW, the ASAE conference has dozens of break-out sessions (their’s are called training labs). And like SXSW, more-and-more of the sessions were about “social media this” and “social media that.”

In the exhibit hall, “social media products” and “social media platforms” and “social media technology” and “social media services” were being pitched and sold (including, by us).

If I didn’t know what “social media” is — really is — going in, I’m sure I would be coming away from the trade show being more confused about social media than ever — when something means everything, it means nothing. (Exception: I thought Charlene Li did a concise job of de-mystifying it in her keynote.)

I fear, however, that in the rush to “do something with ‘social media,'” there are many organizations (companies, associations, non-profits, etc.) that are thinking (wrongly) they can do one of these four things to “do social media”:

Four things that aren’t “social media”:

1. Setting up a page, user-account or anything else on any web service that is “social media” or “social networking.”
2. Purchasing social media platforms and products.
3. Hiring social media experts.
4. Hiring a 22-year-old who knows all about Facebook.

(See: Hype Cycle and Paul Saffo.)

Those, however, are things lots of associations, companies and non-profits currently are “doing about social media.” And like the adoption and hype cycle of almost all transitional technologies, we’ll soon be heading down into a “trough of disillusionment” with “social media” products, technology and services.

Before you start thinking I’m trolling, hear me out: All of those things can, and probably should be, components of a “social media marketing” strategy or program. But I think what’s going on is far bigger than marketing, or even strategies and programs — and certainly bigger than the term “social media.”

There are only 3 things people mean when they use the term social media:

1. The way people take control of their online identity.
2. The way people express themselves online.
3. The way people connect with one-another online.

Anything more about social media is, at best, an explanation of the different ways people can do those things. Or why they do those things. Or the technology enabling new and faster ways of doing those things. Or how those things are blowing up many of the institutions some of us hold onto dearly.

But if you take away the word “online,” social media is what people have done since the dawn of time: We are who we are. We express ourselves. We connect with others.

There’s really nothing new or different about social media — oh, except that online, these things can scale to levels that have the tendency to crush the status quo maintained by those who refuse to adopt them.

Yes, we also may confuse those things off-line and start believing we are what we say or we are who we’re connected to, but we all know the truth when we’re alone by ourselves.

Social media is not stuff. Social media is just you and me having a conversation — and then connecting in ways that are changing the world and every institution in it.

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  • Rex,

    You are exactly right. I am working on my sales team to not get caught up in the features, clicks and shininess of our new conference community tool. Honestly, I could care less about what button is where and what happens when you click this or that.

    What our customers have and always will be interested in is the benefit.

    To paraphrase/borrow from James Carville, “It’s not about the tool, stupid!”

    [It’s about behavior and benefits]

    I think I must have saw you at ASAE in Toronto in a session, but didni’t get to meet you. I am follwoing @hammockinc. ARe you the person behind the account? I was the guy who mentioned that I loved your logo, and to bring me a real hammock to the booth. 🙂

    Best Regards,

    Tony Veroeven
    Conference 2.0 ™ by Omnipress

  • “Social media is not stuff. Social media is just you and me having a conversation — and then connecting in ways that are changing the world and every institution in it.” – AMEN!

  • Thanks, Tony. I’m one of the people who use @hammockinc . We usually put a little tag at the end of those tweets: ^@r or ^@SummerH to designate who posted the tweet. I saw your comment on Twitter about our logo. Thanks. We’ll work on that hammock for future events. ; )

  • Erica

    Rex, this is completely relevant to what I’m discussing RIGHT NOW with clients looking to delve into social-web marketing. Thanks for being on top of what’s happening now.

  • Hmm, for the first time in a long while here, I’m not sure I agree:

    >>But if you take away the word “online,” social media is what
    >>people have done since the dawn of time: We are who we are.
    >>We express ourselves. We connect with others. There’s really
    >>nothing new or different about social media — oh, except
    >>that online, these things can scale to levels that have the
    >>tendency to crush the status quo maintained by those who refuse
    >>to adopt them.

    Sure, people have always been “social” but their ability to interact and connect has changed over time and, I would argue, diminished in many aspects over the past century as families moved apart physically, entertainment and recreation became more screen-based and private and so on. I blogged once about the diaspora of modern life a while back.

    And so I don’t think the only important nuance to online social media is its ability to scale. What about its ability to transcend the limits of time and space? What about its ability to gather and foster highly fragmented or scattered like-minded folks? What about the speed with which you can pop up into a whole connected movement now?

    One quick example. Some one in my town recently discovered that the company that owns an unused, 8-mile rail corridor would be more than happy to abandon its claim and allow a bike path to be built. Within weeks, using Ning, we had a whole web site with an email list and postings and organization for a steering committee. Soon we’ll be using it for fundraising too. Suddenly, we have a movement and we’ve already recruited people from the other 2 towns involved and got the attention of the local press and so on (see That’s social media and that’s “new” and important…

  • Aaron. I don’t think we disagree. I think “scale” was a pretty feeble word in hindsight. What I really meant to say was, “Oh, except online you get to transcend the limits of time and space have the ability to gather and foster highly fragmented or scattered like-minded folks with great speed.”

    My point is that “technology” enabled your group to come together. I (obviously) am about as gung-ho as anyone can be about that. It’s what you did with the tools, not the tools themselves that is the radical breakthrough.

    My reaction is to three days of seeing the technology — and not the people part — being touted as key to “social media.”

    P.S. One of Nashville’s greatest hidden treasures are our growing network of greenways. Good luck on your efforts.

  • Interesting argument Rex. You make relevant points and labeling these platforms may have it’s downfalls. However I am not sure that it is time to write off the term Social Media just yet. There seems to be a misunderstanding of the term “social” generally, and particularly in terms of online application of the term.

    You make a great point about how social interactions add value to life generally, as well as to business connections. It seems to me that the nature of platforms like Twitter, FB et al means people can ignore generally accepted social conventions and basically punt out their message with no attempt to understand anyone else’s point of view, concerns etc. This doesn’t work in face to face interactions and is annoying and counterproductive online.

    However, when done well, the social aspects of these platforms give us a reach and ability to re-connect or begin new relationships that cannot be done any other way. This is truly social and an appropriate use of the term.

    I am also a little uncomfortable with the term since it has become generic as you say, and many of the platforms are now home to distinctly antisocial behaviors. However I find some people wasting energy and time truing to define these offerings with some other terms that are equally bad or worse: “Emerging Media” for example. What does that mean?

    It’s a great debate, thanks for raising it.

  • Jerry. I agree. As I said, we use “social media marketing” to describe aspects of the services we offer…and have no plans to drop that language any time soon. And I can’t stress enough that my argument has nothing to do with what is taking place or how there are nuances of online interactions that make them different that off-line.

  • Couldn’t agree more regarding the term “social media”. Terrific current, relevant, necessary article.
    RIP, social media


  • I think people just need something to categorize “social media”. What else do you call it? I understand that Twitter is not “social media”, but a tool in the “social media” world. So what do you call this type of marketing or interaction, if not “social media”? I think the term will live on for a little while longer, but only until another term comes along for people to overuse. Then what? It’s a vicious cycle.

  • I think I understand your angle and frustration with the term ‘socialmedia’ but most of us would agree that no matter what you call it, there is definitely a shift in how people are now using the web. I also agree that socialmedia falls under the umbrella of “web 2.0” with “web 2.0” being a larger set of advancements in the use of the web — socialmedia being the core of that advancement.

    To understand what I refer to when I say “a shift in how people are using the web” I highly recommend a brand new book called Socialnomics by Erik Qualman.

    Call it what ever you like, but the shift is real and it has significant implications for future society and business.