In the beginning, communicating with people on the net was done via newsgroups, IRC, email, or IM. There are limitations to all of these with respect to getting the message to a mass audience. In reality, most messages were sent to a specific person or very small and select group of people. Social Media, though I hate buzzwords, is a nice catch-all term for a new series of web services that allow for a much greater penetration of a message. It takes a different approach. It puts the power in the hands of the reader/subscriber and not the author.
The advent of blogs are where I think the true birth of Social Media took place. Services like WordPress (which SBR uses), TypePad, Blogger, and LiveJournal gave the non-tech savvy internet user the ability to easily share thoughts and ideas with the world. Sure there were places that had WYSIWYG web page generators, but they were almost always clunky and never really made it easy to share frequent updates with the mass audience of the intarwebs. Blog systems changed all of that by giving people a simple text box to type in and a button to push to add the posts as easily as one would write and send an email. The blog format has been adopted by a great many large sites like Ars Technica and LifeHacker.
RSS feeds added to the blog phenomenon by making it easier to keep track of when new posts were added. This began the opt-in series of services that form the basis of what Social Media is today. If you look at offerings like Twitter, Pownce, and FriendFeed, you truly begin to see the power of the opt-in approach. The limitations of IM such as having to add people you want to talk to and those people having to be online at the time you send your message were overcome. The pains you had to go through to send that message to a lot of people at once were also taken care of. As a matter of fact, you don’t even have to know these people. They will find you and opt-in to your data feed from that service and the service worries about sending your message to all of them whether it is 10 or 10,000 people.
A myriad of clients for these services, both web based and desktop based add to the overall convenience of both posting your own messages and monitoring other’s feeds. This is the true magic of what we call Social Media. Take Twitter as an example. I am following well over 150 people. Granted I miss a few updates from people here and there from the sheer volume of messages, but I get to keep up with all of these people with similar interests that I have never met. I get to see thoughts and ideas and websites and articles I would probably have never seen if it wasn’t for my desktop client (Twhirl on Windows and Twitterrific on my iMac).
A lot of times, it is these messages that spur ideas for my blog posts. I’m sure that I’m not the only one deriving inspiration from random messages in these feeds. Of course, there is a lot of fluff out there but the nice thing is, you can skip it by just not subscribing to those feeds. Besides, what I consider fluff you might consider to be interesting reading. See how putting the power in the reader’s hands is so nice? It isn’t intrusive like all of those annoying forwarded emails that people perpetually send to one another. I get so tired of deleting emails with subjects that start with “FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW” (okay, maybe not quite that many, but you get the picture).
Basically, Social Media is a source of information that is offered through an opt-in service so that user’s interested can choose to be updated when more information is available. It may include getting an SMS with the latest message or getting a daily digest email to the account of your choice. The options are many and varied just like the services offered. The upshot is that these services, when properly implemented, make it much easier to get the information you want in a timely manner without all the hassle of various versions of spam.
Even big time corporations are seeing the advantages of leveraging Social Media networks. Comcast in particular has made some really good strides at improving Customer Service through a dedicated Social Media team. They scour the common services and search through blogs no matter how small to find places where people are complaining about problems they cannot get resolved with Comcast. The team then makes contact with these people and works with them to try and fix the issue. I know this works because they did it for me. I blogged extensively about it here at SBR and I’m happy to say they completely satisfied me with the solution.
So what is my short definition of Social Media? It’s all of those services on the web that let you post regular updates about things and sends those updates to everyone that opts-in to follow your feed/stream/whatever. It is all of those services that let us communicate with people we’ve never met but find what we have to say interesting. It is the next step of the world’s communication medium, but not the last.