How businesses work with social media is a growing issue, complicated by how quickly social media itself is changing. Managers can benefit by understanding better what social media is — and isn’t.

What is social media? Seems like a simple question, doesn’t it?

Despite the considerable amount of attention paid to social media by business, the press, and academia, I’d argue that we still don’t have a clear understanding of what social media actually is.

When asked to define social media, most people probably rely on something similar to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” For these people, the definition of social media is formed by its most high-profile examples — Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

One problem with this definition is that these tools are moving targets with continually changing features. Another problem is that these tools are primarily consumer-oriented platforms that may not reflect the many possibilities of social media for business. They encompass part, but not all, of the term. Strike one.

Other people have offered a more formal definition, one of the most widely adopted of which is the one proposed by Kaplan and Haenlein in a 2010 Business Horizons article. They define social media as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content.”

One problem with this definition is that it uses an equally slippery, ill-defined term to define another. Ask for a definition of Web 2.0, and one likely ends up in the same difficulties found in defining social media. Furthermore, the emphasis on User Generated Content dismisses professionally generated, curated, and automatically generated content, all increasingly important frontiers for social business. Strike two.

A third approach is to list the distinctive features of social media platforms. Ellison and Boyd (2013), updating an earlier version of a definition of social network sites, adopt this approach. They define social media as a “communication platform in which participants 1) have uniquely identifiable profiles that consist of user-supplied content, content provided by other users, and/or system-level data; 2) can publicly articulate connections that can be viewed and traversed by others; and 3) can consume, produce, and/or interact with streams of user-generated content provided by their connections on the site.”

This approach may split the difference between the first two approaches to defining social media, but does not fully overcome the weaknesses of each. It is also limited with respect to how these feature sets are continually changing over time. Strike three.

My point is not simply to discredit leading definitions of social media, limited as they may be. Nor do I have any intention of forwarding a definition my own. I don’t have a better one to offer, despite having spent many years trying. My intention is simply to dispel the notion that social media is clearly defined and, also, that social business is fundamentally different than regular business.

Why is social media so hard to pin down?

Part of the difficulty in creating a definition of social media is technological. There may be some obscure technical differences between social media and traditional technologies, but many important aspects of social media pre-dates its current manifestations. The writer Clay Shirky claims that the first social feature in technology is the “reply all” button, which — of course — means that email is social media, too. At a recent workshop, a manager pushed me further, asking why then wouldn’t written letters also be considered social media? It’s not as easy to dismiss that argument as one might think.

Part of the difficulty is also behavioral. Even if we were to develop some technological definition of social media that were able to cleanly differentiate social media from earlier generations of information technology, I’m not sure we care. Most managers care more about what social media allows people to do than they care about what it is. Social media enables people to organize groups in the hundreds of thousands or more in a few short hours. It allows people to share information about good or bad customer experiences globally in the blink of an eye. It allows employees to collaborate with each other and with customers to improve the business experience.

These are not technological features but behavioral affordances. Although these affordances allow people to interact faster, cheaper, easier, and on a much greater scale than before, it is easy to come up with offline analogues of people organizing, sharing, and collaborating. The behaviors may not be all that different than what came before, but the means and difficulty of realizing them have changed radically.

Lastly, part of the difficulty defining social media is in the interaction between the technological and the behavioral. Hardware, software and bandwidth have gotten smaller, cheaper and more powerful, such that it is now difficult to separate mobile from social. As a result, computing becomes an “always on” experience, and it has become less productive to distinguish between “online” and “offline” relationships, as all relationships are becoming some sort of gradation of the two.

Our increasingly digitized social relationships have advantages in that they allow us to quantify, analyze, and manage them more effectively and efficiently with the help of IT. They also have disadvantages in that the quantification and digitization of relationships invariably reduces much of the nuance and meaning of social relationships that people are inherently very good at assessing. These interaction effects are likely the most critical, because small changes to one can create significant implications for the other. The outcomes of these interactions may also be the most difficult to predict, because complex dynamics can result from these types of cycles of mutual influence. If defining social media is hard, predicting exactly where it is going may be even harder.

Why managers should care that it’s hard to define social media

Social media is an emerging, rapidly changing phenomenon with complex technological, behavioral, and economic implications. It is different from what has gone before, but not completely so.

One set of implications for managers has to do with whether and how businesses adopt social media. When managers ask me whether they should get involved in “social business,” I typically counter that they already are. They are just using one set of social media tools (email, telephone, face-to-face meetings) instead of another. The question they need to ask themselves is whether they are using the right tools to accomplish their business objectives.

An analogy is that while it may be possible to complete an entire round of golf using only one or two clubs, most golfers want a variety of clubs that are appropriate for handling a broad range of situations. Likewise, businesses can function using a few social media tools, but many managers will want a broader selection of tools at their disposal to handle a variety of situations and objectives. I might even go so far as to argue that there is no such thing as “social business,” there is only business — management, marketing, operations — which may or may not make use of these new IT-enabled collaboration tools we refer to as social media.

Another set of implications, however, has to do with how managers use social media for business and encourage employees to use it. The behavioral affordances provided by these technologies create the opportunity to do business differently than would otherwise be possible. Employees can create information collaboratively without needing to meet face to face. They allow employees to find, share, and request information and expertise across an organization with much greater scope and speed. Managers can use the data generated by employee interactions on social media platforms to provide much greater insight into employee behavior and performance than traditional managerial practices of “walking around” or formal performance evaluations. It also may allow managers to solicit more reliable information or feedback on their own performance from their employees. In short, the behavioral affordances provided by social media provide an opportunity to reimagine the way work is done in contemporary organizations.

Managers need to understand the nature of social media so that they can understand its strengths and weaknesses for their own business. Customers and employees are often using social media, whether the manager likes it or not. Competitors are innovating and experimenting with social media to conduct their own business faster, at a greater scope, and with broader reach than is possible without these tools. If competitors can figure out how to use social media for their advantage (and they will), then the manager and his or her business will lose out — unless he or she can keep up. After all, there is no such thing as social business — there is only business.

About the Author

Gerald C. (Jerry) Kane is an Associate Professor of Information Systems at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. He has been researching and teaching social media and social networks since 2005. He can be reached at Gerald.kane@bc.edu