Defining Social Media

 Posted by on Aug 9, 2011  Add comments
Aug 092011

“Social media” is one of these phrases that has emerged in recent years for which there is still not a single, broadly accepted definition. Thus, every author tends to propose his or her own. This is not just vanity; it is also the sign of an immature and rapidly evolving field.

In a recent Executive Update, Cutter Fellow Steve Andriole and Cutter Senior Consultant Vince Schiavone define social media by extension, listing the following components (with my examples added in parentheses):[1]

  • Social networks (LinkedIn)
  • Blogs and microblogs (WordPress and Twitter)
  • Forums and message boards (Yammer and Google Groups)
  • Multimedia sites (YouTube and Flickr)

A definition made up of a list has some drawbacks: it does not tell you what social media is not, and it does not leave room for the next new thing. An interesting “intentional” definition was given by Vince Polley, when he referred to social media in a video presentation as: “bidirectional communication, using several channels, with a key audience, for a sustained period of time.”[2]

In a 2010 Cutter Update, I argued that we have emerged from a period during which we fantasized that we could capture all the knowledge we need for our work in the form of searchable electronic documents.[3] We are rediscovering something we should never have forgotten. We are social animals, and we often prefer to ask someone, or to explain to someone, than to read or write a static document. Therefore, four key elements that should be present in a definition of social media are:

  1. The information, and any feedback from the audience, is carried over person-to-person connections established voluntarily among participants, based on affinity or reflecting a real-world connection or a chain of connections.
  2. It includes, and potentially combines, multiple forms of information including text, audio, pictures, video, and so on.
  3. The content is typically produced and published on the Internet or on an intranet by the authors without requiring the services of a professional editor and is mostly accessed via a Web browser.
  4. The purpose is to share the information with this audience for the sake of doing so, not directly for profit. In other words, the network is not just the intermediary, it is also the goal.

It follows, for example, that while YouTube is a social medium, Netflix is not. But the differences between social media and Enterprise 2.0 are less clear. In 2009, Dion Hinchcliffe, a well-known analyst and commentator on the Enterprise 2.0 phenomenon, proposed nine capabilities of Enterprise 2.0 (see Figure 1).[4]

Figure 1 — Types of Enterprise 2.0. (Source: Hinchcliffe.)

Figure 1 makes it clear that most of the Enterprise 2.0 capabilities are social in nature: five of Hinchcliffe’s nine capabilities contain the word “social,” and two contain the word “communities.” Should we strive to make a distinction, it would be that social media does not just give people the power to distribute information on the Web in a many-to-many manner, which is the definition of Web 2.0 and, by extension, of Enterprise 2.0; it is that the information is carried along a network of connections between people who, to some extent, know each other and made a conscious decision to connect to each other to form a social graph.

It’s Not Just About My Breakfast Anymore

Assuming that we now have a clearer sense of what social media is and is not, let’s now focus on the uses one can make of it in the enterprise. People have dismissed the private versions of social networking (e.g., MySpace and Facebook) as “people telling all their friends what they had for breakfast.” It is really unfair to dismiss a large phenomenon based on the real but marginal existence of such frivolous postings. It’s a little like claiming that the telephone should not be used for business because some people make prank calls or dial wrong numbers.

In a 2009 McKinsey Quarterly article on how companies are benefiting from Web 2.0, the publication listed 12 Enterprise 2.0 capabilities and their levels of adoption by businesses.[5] Table 1 lists these capabilities (the order is McKinsey’s, alphabetized according to the names the publication gave each capability), with my opinion on whether each of them constitutes a social medium.

Table 1 — Enterprise 2.0 vs. Social Media (Source: McKinsey Quarterly)

Enterprise 2.0 Capability Social Medium?
Blogs Yes, only if there is a notion of “follower” and the ability to comment
Mashups No
Microblogging Yes, since the follower-followee relationship is typically fundamental
Peer-to-peer Yes (whatever this broad term really means)
Podcasts Not usually
Prediction Markets No
Rating Yes, if there is a social component (e.g., “Like” button on Facebook)
Social Networking Yes, by definition
Tagging Only if it is “social tagging” (i.e., collaborative; and if people get alerts when their friends have tagged some information with a tag that they follow)
Video Sharing Yes, only if there is a notion of “followers” and the ability to comment
Wikis Yes, although a wiki may be “socialized” to a very small circle only, or may be mandated reading in a department rather than being affinity-based

In their previously cited Update, Andriole and Schiavone list what they called “six social media channels.” I would criticize the word “channel,” which in the world of relationships and media tends to mean a particular conduit for information delivery, preferring the term “capability,” which is consistent with the current emphasis on business capability mapping in enterprise architecture. These six capabilities are:

  1. Social market research
  2. Brand and marketing intelligence
  3. Competitive intelligence
  4. Product innovation and lifecycle management
  5. Social customer service
  6. Threat tracking

In a series of Executive Reports for Cutter’s Business Intelligence Practice, I will dive deeper into these areas, but I will also expand the scope beyond the above list, which is largely focused on the marketing function of the enterprise (spilling over to R&D with #4). (For more information or to order these reports, please go to ?


1. ?Andriole, Steve, and Vincent J. Schiavone. “” Cutter Consortium Business Technology Trends & Impacts Executive Update, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2011.

2. Polley, Vince. “Social Media Legal Issues.” Video presentation to the North Carolina Bar Association, 21 February 2011.

3. Baudoin, Claude R. “It’s Not (Just) What You Know, It’s Who You Know.” Cutter Consortium Business Intelligence Executive Update, Vol. 10, No. 9, 2010.

4. Hinchcliffe, Dion. “Enterprise 2.0: Chance or Fool’s Paradise for Business Transformation in Economic Crisis.” Closing Keynote Address, Enterprise 2.0 Summit 2009.

5. “How Companies Are Benefiting from Web 2.0: McKinsey Global Survey Results.” McKinsey Quarterly, September 2009.


  6 Responses to “Defining Social Media”

  1. Multimedia sites (YouTube and Flickr)

    When did Youtube and Flickr become multimedia sites

    youtube = Video only
    Flickr = Pix only..

    Media formats can’t be mixed in terms of actually blending various type so media .. e.g

    Google+ is multimedia, FF = multimedia

    • You caught a bit of sloppy writing, thanks for pointing this out. I meant that they deal with non-textual content — photos and videos — as opposed to the more traditional discussion forums, etc., that deal primarily with text. They’re only multimedia in the sense that there can be comment threads, as well as “likes”, that bring a social aspect to them based on text, while the anchor of any such discussion is a non-textual medium. But you have a valid point that each of these systems is focused on one graphic medium only.

  2. Is there a difference between Social Media in enterprise and Enterprise 2.0?

    I think there are 5 stumbling blocks for E2.0:

    – Incompatibility – structured approach in enterprise vs. Self-organizing approach in web 2.0
    – Web 2.0 hype – solution in search of a problem
    – Small size of community
    – Limiting impact of the organization boundary
    – Conflicting need – security restriction vs. Open access

    • Udayan, the distinction is not quite well made by the various authors and consultants, but it has to do with this:
      * Enterprise 2.0 uses Web-based sollaboration in the enterprise, but this is still people related to information, not people relating to people. Instead of having central staff publishing content to others, you now have a more democratic exchange of information through blogs, wikis, etc. — but it is still information-centric
      * Social Media implies that you now have an explicit recording of the connections between people (“friend” in Facebook, “connection” in LinkedIn, etc.) so that the sharing of ideas and knowledge becomes people-centric.

      If I look at the 5 bullets you list as “stumbling blocks,” I have varied opinions about them:
      – Incompatibility: I wouldn’t say it’s incompatible, but complementary or evolutionary
      – Hype: I would disagree. There was a clear problem, which was that a few central information publishers can’t do all that’s needed and can’t be as right all the time as if a lot of people get to review the information. Web 2.0 allows the web to scale up, it also enables a broader contribution base.
      – Size of community: you’re quite correct. A large company/organization can create a working E2.0 or social environment, a small organization can’t. But small organizations can sometimes participate in a broader, cross-organization community. Or they can participate in a social media effort by connecting with their clients and partners. So it’s not a stumbling block as long as you recognize the issue and strategize around it.
      – Boundaries: you’re correct *if* the organization wants to put up a Chinese Wall around itself. On the other hand, if it is able to collaborate with others in a meaningful way in spite of confidentiality concerns, there may be benefits.
      – Conflicting need: that’s the same problem as above.

      The problem with the view of “stumbling blocks” is that people freeze in their tracks and do nothing. The goal of my paper was to show (and part II will be more explicit about it, as I assume you’re responding to part I), that you can look at these issues and still make reasonable positive decisions to exploit the benefits without falling prey to the risks.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. […] I find the definition too broad especially with the term social media is not defined and a search on the web and give you several definitions from different authors. This is understandable as social media is still an immature and rapidly evolving based on Claude Baudion from the Cutter Blog. […]

    • The definition of “social media” is indeed broad and changing as new forms of social engagement are tried, succeed or fail, both in the personal domain and in terms of enterprise involvement. In my Executive Report entitled “Social Media and the Enterprise” from early 2011, I gave some of the characteristics I think define social media. I also referred to a McKinsey Quarterly article and commented on whether what it listed as social media met those criteria. For example, they included blogs, but blogs can be one-way self-publishing vehicles rather than actual social engagement mechanisms. Now if a blog allows people to respond or comment, and if multiple readers can interact with each other and with the author, and end up forming an ad-hoc community of followers, then I would argue that this is a social medium.

      I think this means we agree 🙂

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