The Guardian’s Bobbie Johnson has penned a savage missive lambasting Mashable for overhyping the ‘social media bubble’.

Turns out that Bobbie is sick of hearing about ‘social media’, and I can understand why. It is a catch-all term that is losing a lot of meaning. And it’s a term that many people are using with increasing frequency, as highlighted by Google Trends:

Mashable claimed that social media had officially moved into the big time following Christian Bale’s hilarious rant. Writer Adam Ostrow wrote: 

Perhaps the biggest ‘social media going mainstream’ event since a plane landed in the Hudson River, the Bale incident has sparked an endless number of Tweets (it’s been the #1 or #2 trending topic since the story hit), blog posts, and parodies.”

Bobbie counters this with a slack jaw:

It’s the biggest social media going mainstream event since the last one three weeks ago. The ‘proof’ that it’s going mainstream? That it has produced a lot of activity on Twitter.”

Naturally the comments area of that post has turned into a shitstorm of pro-Mashable vs pro-Bobbie supporters. 

But his point is a valid one. Everything is pretty much ‘social’ and ‘media’. Yet, going to the pub and gossiping about Bale wouldn’t be classified as a ‘social drinking sensation’. He clarifies: “Social media is people. People talk about stuff. The end.”

Of course he’s totally right, but there’s a little bit more to it than that, if you’re trying to engage with ‘people’ in the context of business or marketing. You have to get into the detail, and figure out what works best on any given platform.

‘Social media’ is certainly hard to pin down, as a phrase. It is tough to draw a fixed boundary around it, to define its jurisdiction and determine what it actually means and represents. Social media includes a bit of this, and a bit of that, and a bit of the other. And that’s a bit of a problem.

It’s easy enough to flatten the phrase with a hammer into ‘people’ and ‘stuff’, but that’s not going to help business folk from an operational standpoint. Not that Christian Bale needs to worry about this, though the movie marketing people certainly do (note that his rant is a genius internet marketing move, by accident or design).

See, social media affects your marketing, reputation monitoring, PR and customer services strategies, and so on. As such both clients and agencies are mad for it, and I too have a plan to launch something in this area. Many established agencies are re-positioning themselves to be seen in this space.

As proof of this, take the Econsultancy Innovation Awards, which we announced at the end of last year. We had around 230 entries across 12 or 13 categories, of which a whopping 48 entries were filed into the social media category. That took some judging, I can tell you. By contrast, the ‘customer retention’ category, which is massively important yet thoroughly ignored by most marketers, had less than a dozen entries. I guess it’s easier to be innovative in a ‘new’ area (it ain’t especially new, although the term is). 

There’s no doubting that this is a hot category, and one that spans across various disciplines which allows all manner of ‘experts’ to pin their flag onto the social media mast. It’s just that we need to separate hype from reality, and focus on the nuts and bolts of what it means for business. Or just what it means, full stop. Be specific.

Earlier this week I made some bad noise about the use of jargon and buzzwords and related PRspeak in our industry. There’s no getting away from some of these terms, but we should try to protect the meaning of words and phrases. And to not overuse buzzwords, or blindly insert them into Powerpoint slides to wow prospective clients. 

‘Social media’, I fear, has been overused to the point of losing all meaning.