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

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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.

Why?

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.