Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

The Curse of Popular Terms like "Social Media"

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’

I use the term “social media” all the time. It’s one of the terms listed in the index banner at the top of this page. Besides, development of “social media” strategies and tactics are an important focus of some of my current consulting clients.

Lately, though, I’ve become aware of some of the term’s limitations, based on my client work and what I see as potential problems caused by a failure to ensure that we are all speaking about the same thing.

I’m not the only person concerned about the term; others are thinking about the meaning issue as well. One issue is the word “social” itself. Distinctions between “social” and “professional” communications are difficult if not impossible to make when it’s so easy to use online networks to communicate about so many different topics. Plus, there is the tendency of some — still — to denigrate the term “social science” in comparison with engineering and harder sciences.

Finally, when concerns about government policy and responsibility are added to the discussion, simplistic terms like “social” and “professional” become even harder to distinguish when one is trying to convert legislative language and public policy into guidelines for communication environments that are inherently difficult to control. Consider the issue of “public” versus “private” social media tools. Public networking platforms such as Facebook and Linkedin offer varying degrees of privacy and access restrictions to different member categories. Defining such networks in terms of simple terms like “public” and “private” isn’t that helpful.

Thinking we can get rid of the term “social media” is probably just as fruitless as getting rid of the term “web 2.0.” As a consultant, for example,  I have to concern myself with the needs of my clients. If they insist on using terms such as “web 2.0” and “social media” I shall comply. At the same time, I have a responsibility to make sure my clients understand the meanings and implications of using such terms. For example, I have the responsibility to ensure that clients understand that there is more to social media than Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

Fortunately, none of these potential points of confusion is impossible to address clearly and openly. You don’t need an advanced degree to understand the different functions that different types of online social networking tools support. But you do need to be clear about your goals and the types of one-way and two-way communication you’re trying to facilitate. Once you do that, differentiating among the different “social media” tools that can support communication and collaboration becomes much simpler, and the possibility of confusion around terminology is likewise reduced.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Dennis D. McDonald

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