Earlier today I was once again asked to wrap a neat definition around social media. It seems increasingly hard to do this without sounding like a bit of a tool.

I said something along the lines of: “It’s about participation, which can happen on your site and elsewhere. It boosts engagement and as such you must learn to love it.” 

Thankfully I avoided phrases like ‘new paradigm’ and ‘leveraging user-generated synergies’, but still, I wasn’t entirely happy with my framework. I didn’t talk about media, as such, nor the types of media, but distilled it into interaction and engagement. I'm not sure that's much of a definition, for the average journalist or newcomer.

I want a stickier, more memorable definition. So I looked it up, and asked the question to our Twitter followers to see what came back at me…

Social media defined

“Social media are primarily Internet-based tools for sharing and discussing information among human beings.” - Wikipedia 

“A category of sites that is based on user participation and user-generated content. They include social networking sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, or My Space, social bookmarking sites like Del.icio.us, social news sites like Digg or Simpy, and other sites that are centered on user interaction.” - Lazworld

“Online technologies and practices that people use to share opinions, insights, experiences, and perspectives with each other.” - tvb.org

“Social media are works of user-created video, audio, text or multimedia that are published and shared in a social environment, such as a blog, wiki or video hosting site.” - Capilanou

“An umbrella term that defines the various activities that integrate technology, social interaction, and the construction of words and pictures.” - Anvil Media

“Software tools that allow groups to generate content and engage in peer-to-peer conversations and exchange of content (examples are YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, MySpace etc).” - Bottle PR

“Social Media is the collection of tools and online spaces available to help individuals and businesses to accelerate their information and communication needs.” - Axel Schultze

Other useful pointers

iCrossing’s e-book (PDF) on social media neatly captures the five key elements of social media: participation, openness, conversation, community, connectedness.

Social media overlord Robert Scoble has previously described it thus: “When I say ‘social media’ or “new media” I’m talking about Internet media that has the ability to interact with it in some way.”

Marta Kagan’s excellent ‘What The F**K is Social Media’ slideshow has a pretty good definition: “Social media is an umbrella term that defines the various activities that integrate technology, social interaction, and the construction of words, pictures, videos and audio.”

The Twittersphere speaketh!

In addition to the above I thought it would be a good idea to ask our glorious Twitter followers the question: “What is social media?” (in 140 characters or less). Our thanks to all who took part.

Here’s what they defined it as… 

  1. Social media is like going to a large party. Put on your best outfit, try to be entertaining, don't put own foot in mouth - @srufo
  2. Social Media = Sharing Caring Conversations Online - @ActiveLife
  3. A place to hang out and communicate with your own networks of contacts, friends and peers about stuff that interests you - @rumbels
  4. Social Media = The facilitation and practice of engagement and conversation online - @rosiefresh
  5. People. Technology. Communication. Ideas. Choice. - @EngineCreative
  6. It's new groups of online media which share things like openness, 'connectedness' participation, conversation and community - @KateBiz
  7. Definition of social media: Media that allows discussion and interaction, as opposed to broadcast only. - @leifkendall
  8. My definition of social media 'the Internet's original purpose-not a new phenomena' but there are other forms of 'offline' SM - @greenwellys
  9. Talking online with people you don't know in the hope that they'll become customers! - @supanovatrainer
  10. A set of websites that allows users to directly interact with each other - @Nenad
  11. The definition of social media du jour is, simply, '140 characters or less' - @oliverpayne
  12. This year's equivalent of WAP portals - @mattycurry
  13. A place where people go connect with other people. I guess the 'love' column in London Paper could even be a social media. It isn’t limited to online media - @matthewgain
  14. No holds barred informal networking and content sharing - @thefloatingfrog
  15. Internet tools developed and defined in part by the people who use them and that connect those people in some way - @talance
  16. SM is a open platform, free form, uncensored conversation between millions of people worldwide without borders. - @catlowmusic
  17. Our web tomorrow, today - @rafiq
  18. Something non-institutional involving a level discursive playing field...or something like that - @alasdairt
  19. Social media is getting a msg across in as few words as possible, in as little time as possible, to as many people as possible - @KateHorstead
  20. Engage, share, spread, cooperate, interact, learn, enjoy - @fredchannel
  21. An online communication community where networks formed by the members shape the flow and formation of the content? - @justingould
  22. Social Media is how Internet changed social networking by using all the different web tools to communicate socially. - @tornow
  23. It is a thing of opposites; compelling and annoying, time wasting and time efficient, useful and useless. - @nettya

That's about 34 definitions to choose from. Not sure if that helps or hinders, but take yer pick, or add your own below.

[Image thanks to Altemark via Flickr. Various rights reserved.]

Chris Lake

Published 19 March, 2009 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (13)

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Rick Boretsky


over 9 years ago


Rax Lakhani

Conversation. Plain and simple.fort

over 9 years ago


Ray Schiel

Social Media is a communications tool allowing people to talk and listen on a professional or personal level.

over 9 years ago

Guy Stephens

Guy Stephens, Social Customer Care Consultant at IBM Interactive Experience/GBS/Mobile

It's like a party in someone's house. Lots of conversations going on in different rooms about all sorts of different things, somehow though you always end up in the kitchen or hallway. The difference is that you create that hallway or kitchen space.

over 9 years ago


Axel Schultze

Chris - Interesting to see the collection. Reading my and other definitions, I feel the difficulty with the definition.

While Social Media is MEDIA and it is SOCIAL and as such a "thing", when we say "Social Media" in most of our brains who breath the social media life, we think in emotions, in relationships, we see faces and remember conversations. We may think about how to apply all that. For most of us Social Media is a STATE OF MIND - but even though - in 2020 it is a part of our society like laws, respect, freedom.... 

And as such the right terminology for "Social Media" is still what I and others said above - but we may actually need to create a new term that describes all the other aspects - the VERB to social media.
- The behavioral changes
- The sociological shift
- Open business
- Competition for mind share in a whole new way
It is all socializing - but in an accelerated way - tools supported that allows our to expand our social powers like machines helped to expand our muscle powers in the previous revolution - called industrialization.

We will see where we all together lead ourselves :-)

over 9 years ago



Guy Debord gave me the perfect definition what social media is:

"This society eliminates geographical distance only to produce a new internal seperation."

This might not be your definition, but it certainly ought to give us food for thought.

I never went onto bebo, nor have I a myspace or a sitonmyfacebook  account. For the simple reason that I don't believe in them. I don't believe people have that many "friends" on those, I don't believe that they are having such a fulfilled social life. Most of them sit behind a keyboard. Alone. Granted, they chat:

"Hey I haven't seen you on here for ages, how have you been, what's been happening?"

"Nothing much really, same old, working drinking, how 'bout you?"

"To be honest, same here really."

"Yeah, well...".

"Well good to catch up anyway"!

"Yes, deffo"

"C u xxx."

"C u xx."

...  Nice. Frankly I'm rather alone in a bar. In fact, I am. Freqently. Because most of my mates are fucking online, doing this or very similar anadyne, empty blether, devoid of any meaning and significance. And they do this while they're alone.

This is the Zeitgeist: we have all the technology in the world, yet we can't listen

People increasingly talk at each other, not with each other.

There's a huge difference. Approximately as big as connecting to the net and connecting to a fit bloke/sexy girl in a pub/caff (insert venue of your choice here - as long it's not a chatroom! I'm talking actual venue here. In the analogue sense, yes this exludes a chatroom!)

Thanks for letting me rant, but I am sick to my bones of shallow online chitchat without having the possibility of screening my talking partner's body language, looking him in the eyes, the lot.

And I still haven't even got to the point of the increasing big-brother screening- and-retaining-all-you-private-mails element to most of the social chat sites. Not really that social methinks.

Rant over,

Hal, aka Kebabpunk

over 9 years ago


Richard Stacy

Social media is the liberation of content from its means of distribution http://tinyurl.com/bcfc7p

over 9 years ago


Paul Ingersole

Social media is about breaking down barriers.It forgets about demographics and making judgements because of appearance or status.Social media is all about content and quality of contribution.Engagement and empathy in business and life that is social media.

over 9 years ago


Donald H Taylor

A fascinating and wide-ranging discussion. Thanks for setting it up.

For me, a lot of social media definitions focus on the tools alone and not why they are used. My definition: social media is a collection of tools that let us view, or share, information ranging from the purely factual to the total social. That's it.

Why do people use different social media tools in different ways? I produced this simple 5 minute slidecast to show how using what I call 'A simple social media map':


about 9 years ago



Social Media is the new marketplace. Either you are in or out.

about 6 years ago


Visakan Veerasamy, Marketing at ReferralCandy

Thought I'd add a definition of my own: Social media is the convergence of communications and publishing. To be more precise, it is any system of nodes with equal capacities to publish and subscribe to information feeds. Here's a blogpost that explores it: http://blog.referralcandy.com/2013/09/30/what-is-social-media/

almost 5 years ago


Kathryn Dawes, social media manager at IMG

For me, social media is not just about the tools, or the platforms. I think it definitely has to involve a community, or a forum, and technology, but there are so many variations. It could be on your website through the ability to leave a comment. It could be through reviews about a restaurant. It could be a social media platform like Facebook or Twitter. For me it is even group messaging. For me, social media is anything that involves technology and a group of 2 or more people sharing content between each other.

over 3 years ago


James Paige, content writer at BuyRealMarketing

Nice Blog Post! Thank you for sharing this valuable information to us here @buyrealmarketing.

over 1 year ago

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