I’m seeing a lot of conflation between online social networks and social media. Perhaps tellingly, I’m seeing this in the media — including social media. Both are essential aspects of this crazy evolving thing called the interwebs but they are also fundamentally different creatures.
Social networks have always existed. The web just supplements existing structures for maintaining them. Online platforms led by Facebook, Orkut, Bebo and Hi5 are doing the job of coffee mornings, playground games, church meetings, etc. They provide a lightweight way to maintain and develop interaction with the people that you know, directly or indirectly, and you go by your ‘real world’ name.
Social media (as I understand it) is qualitatively different in that it isn’t based on an existing relationship. It means that you are more likely than not to have never met your followers. Many are brands, bands, organisations or bots. As such, you generally follow them because of what they post rather than who they are (unless they are a celebrity, in which case they are really a brand). Asymmetry rules. Myspace and Twitter are the biggies here. Blogging was always social media. With social media, you address the world and not just your friends.
Twitter is interesting in that it’s adapted from a social network pitch to a social media one. Their original front page pitch:
Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?
…is now social media simple…
Share and discover what’s happening right now, anywhere in the world.
Of course, there is always some overlap. Social groups form around a shared interest and if you’re into social media then that can be the focus for a social network just like anything else. Phenomenal social offshoots like Twitpanto wouldn’t work for Facebook.
Conversely, the most desirable place for brands is the voluntary endorsement across social networks — online or off. This ‘tell your friends’ marketing approach has always been the golden strategy and online social network platforms only put a rocket up it.
If you are not sure whether a social web platform is social media or social network then a scientific, quantitative test might be to check the structure of the graph; if it’s heavily clustered around a minority of publishers then you are looking at social media. If it’s more evenly distributed then it’s more like a social network.
If you don’t have time for this analysis, perhaps a facetious snap test of whether something is social media is whether someone can make a living explaining how to use it 😉