What Is Social Media, Anyway? (And Why Managers Should Care)

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.

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Social Business

Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
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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.

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Social Business

Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
More in this series

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