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Some commons-based peer production efforts are less self-conscious on the part of the users, and emerge more as a function of distributed coordinate behavior, like del.icio.us or Flickr. The critical defining feature of these “enterprises” is that they rely primarily on social information flows, motivations, and relations to organize the group. Individuals self-identify, mostly, for tasks, and through a variety of peer-review mechanisms contributions get recognized by the group and incorporated into what emerges as the collaborative output.

-Yochai Benkler, interview in OpenBusiness (about his book The Wealth of Networks)


As with "Web 2.0" and "synergy," the term "social media" has taken on a buzzword life of its own, and spawned its own mutant bastard already, "social media marketing." As with those other terms, and much Internet jargon, "social media" means different things to different people. Let me quickly review how I've seen it used, then talk about what we mean when we talk about social media.

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Take any classic or interactive medium, add social interaction to it, and you've got social media, whether it takes off or fizzles in a vacuum.

The term social media first got on my radar as a way of generalizing what was going with blogs circa 2002. The combination of blogging with RSS (newsfeeds, feedreaders), sometimes in the same application (as with Dave Winer's Radio Userland software), enabled a call-and-response, many-to-many conversational ecosystem to arise, become a bubble, calve into many smaller overlapping and distinct subcommunities, and so on.

In that scenario, the blog posts were the media, but then as now much blogging involved linking to sources, which themselves might come from the traditional, mainstream media (or MSM, as some of the political bloggers tend to call it) or from other independent voices. For some people online, a transformation began by which they realized they were consuming much of their media (news, gossip, video clips, information) through social intermediaries: reading articles when a more prominent blogger linked to them, discovering media fads and memes by following BoingBoing or many other similar trend tracking sites, tuning in to the blogs and publications of likeminded people and relying on them to filter the vast unfathomable information flow for those valuable nuggets of relevancy.

Along the way the term social media began to stand in for web 2.0 or the social web or social networking or (now) the experiences epitomized by Facebook and Twitter. I called this "the living web" in my last book. Technorati tried branding it as the world live web. The idea is that as the web becomes more social (that's the word we've all converged on), there is an element of it that is read-write, that involved people writing and revising and responding to each other not in a one-to-one or one-to-many fashion, but many-to-many.

The problem with using social media as a generic term for the entire Internet-enabled social context is that the word media, already slippery (does it refer to works of creation, or to finding relevant news/media items, or to public chatter and commentary, or all of these things?), starts to add nothing to the phrase.

Most recently we've seen a proliferation of social media marketing experts and gurus online and their messages range from the sublime (that marketing can truly be turned inside out as a form of customer service and through Cluetrainful engagement with customers as human beings through ordinary conversations and public responsiveness) to the mundane (as in the early days of hte Internet, every local market has its village explainers), to the ridiculous (a glorified version of spam).

The collection of patterns that comprise this book were once labeled "social media patterns," after the social media toolkit that Matt Leacock started at Yahoo!, but as it evolved, it became clear that we were using "social media" to mean "social networking" or "involving the social graph" or just "social," so for clarity's sake, we're using it to refer to "media that is created, filtered, engaged with, and remixed socially."

Here's a similar, but slightly more community-oriented definition of social media from Harjeet Gulati:

Social Media collectively refers to content (in the form of Text (Blogs, Discussion Forums, Wikis), Voice (Podcasts), or Video (YouTube) that is generated by the community of users for consumption within the same community. In this model, the role of Publisher and Consumer of information is delegated to the community at large. The role of the Channel becomes key in this model even as the degree of control that the community exercises over the content that is displayed within the boundaries of a given system varies. Where the term 'media' meant traditional channels like Newspaper, Radio and Television, the advent of the Web in early nineties accelerated the inclusion of the Web as a medium to reach out to others. The content ownership in traditional media continued to be with the 'publishers' of content - the production houses, newspapers, tv channels, and radio stations. Content Owners/Publishers, the Channel and the Consumers were clearly differentiated. As web continued to evolve, the term 'Social Media' has come to dominate the discussion. Social Media encourages a participative, collective model of content creation, distribution and usage and is more representative of the tastes and inclinations of the community at large.

We find it most useful to focus on the social objects (which may be media objects but may also be such things as calendar events) and the activities people can do with them and with each other through our social interfaces.

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