What is the ‘media’ of social media?

Is this what social media looks like?
Is this what social media looks like?

Sometimes we become so immersed in a thing that we can’t distance ourselves from it enough to think critically about it. Like air. It’s all around us, and unless something happens to disrupt its usual quality, we rarely give it much thought.

And then sometimes we can’t think critically about a thing because we bring our own biases and pre-conceived ways of thinking about the thing that we can’t fathom any other perspective.

For those of us who work in social media, we probably don’t understand this thing as well as we could, and for a combination of the two reasons I mention above. First, we’re too immersed in our social media work to view it with much detachment. Second, and we filter our understanding of it through our own biases or the requirements of our job on how we use it. If I’m a marketer, for example, then my marketing background is going to affect how I view social media.

Viewing through a different lens

Lately I’ve been thinking more about our understanding of social media — or our lack of understanding — because of something I read in the early pages of John Naughton’s book From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: Disruptive Innovation in the Age of the Internet.

By comparing the communications revolution spawned by the Internet to that which arose from Gutenberg’s printing press some 550-plus years ago, Naughton — a British academic,  blogger and tech columnist — draws some interesting parallels. But first, he provides some context about how to think about the Internet and all its trappings. At one point, he suggests that some of us may be viewing this thing called social media through the wrong lens.

Like many of you, I have a background in communications — in my case, journalism. Whenever journalists, marketers, strategic communicators and others with similar academic and vocational backgrounds think about a “medium,” the singular of media, we tend to think about a conduit of information. Television is one medium of communication. A newspaper is another.

“The conventional — journalistic — interpretation holds that a medium is a carrier of something,” writes Naughton.

That’s how I typically think of social media: as a carrier of information. That’s how I was trained to think of any sort of media, social or otherwise.

A global Petri dish?

But as Naughton points out, a biologist may offer a different perspective on the word.

In biology, media are used to grow tissue cultures — living organisms. … It seems to me that this is a useful metaphor for thinking about human society; it portrays our social system as a living organism that depends on a media environment for the nutrients it needs to survive and develop.

Perhaps that’s what this thing we call social media is. Maybe it’s more than just a communications conduit — more than a “series of tubes,” as one out-of-touch politician put it many years ago.

Maybe it’s a type of global, interconnected Petri dish that provides the digital nutrients our interconnected world needs to sustain the increasingly complex, interdependent and internetworked social systems.

And because we’re all immersed in this giant Petri dish, we can’t fully understand its impact — no more than a jellyfish could comprehend how it and seaweed both thrive in the waters of the sea.

This brings me to the question I’m grappling with: If we were to start thinking of social media more as an ecosystem and less as a carrier of information, how would that change our approaches — vocational and personal — to social media?


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

4 thoughts on “What is the ‘media’ of social media?”

  1. Good thought provoking piece, Andy. Thanks for making us dig deeper.

    To me, the answer has always been if you use social media as a way to build relationships and connect w/people, you’re on the right path. We have all kinds of media, but only social media has the power to connect people. Its beauty, as an ecosystem if you will, is that it is the only media that does that. I think that’s the golden ticket–start from that base. Social media is social first, media second. As journos, we are so used to using media to broadcast, we are slow to catch on to the real power of social.

    1. Thanks for those comments, Chris. I have to disagree somewhat with your assertion that social media is the only form of media (in the journalistic sense) that has the power to connect people. I think many forms of media connect people — from books we share to global news events like the first Gulf War and the Tiananmen Square uprising, both of which connected us through television. What social media brings that other forms of media do not, though, is a greater ease of participation and sharing. Newspapers have long been interactive, but it took more effort to write a letter to the editor than it does to comment on a blog (thank you for doing that!) or sharing a tweet.

      BUT I do agree that social media is social first. The question I’m grappling with is our definition of media. We ex-journalists are sometimes slow to change our perspectives on that. :-)

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