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Defining Social Media: 2006 – 2010

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana, Life of Reason, Reason in Common Sense, 1905

A few years ago, I was part of a dedicated group of people who worked together to establish Social Media as an official stage in the progression of New Media. An evolution that is well documented and a conversation still continues today.

As referenced in the original Social Media Manifesto published in June 2007, “Monologue has given way to dialog.”

Before Social Media was officially “Social,” several well-known pundits observed the composition of socially-driven ideas and technologies and as such collaborated to help document the landscape and also define and defend Social Media as a legitimate classification for the democratization of publishing and the equalization of influence.

As the category gained momentum, it elicited a series of opposing views and introduced new ideas as the saga unfolded. At the same time, it also opened Pandora’s box and consequently invited the very masses it was designed to empower to define Social Media. Years later, the definition and its history as documented in Wikipedia are truly representative of just how much and how little we know and also agree on its definition and its destiny.

The initial entry was submitted to Wikipedia in July of 2006 and since then there have been hundreds of edits and iterations – most of which are inaccurate and misleading.

In June of 2007, I called for evangelists, experts, and visionaries to collaborate on seeking and documenting a simple and functional definition for Social Media. The goal was to establish a common point of departure from which we could convert uncharted paths into navigational waypoints documented through shared experiences. In many ways, we were, and still are, digital cartographers.  Those actively involved in the ongoing discussions included Doc Searls, Stowe Boyd, Robert Scoble, Jay Rosen, Chris Heuer, Jeremiah Owyang, Shel Israel, Chris Shipley, Deb Schultz, JD Lasica, et al.

After much analysis, hosted conversations, debates, and continued research, a working definition was proposed, and for the most part, continues to guide many practitioners today.

Short Version

Any tool or service that uses the internet to facilitate conversations.

Long Version

Social Media is the democratization of information, transforming people from content readers into publishers. It is the shift from a broadcast mechanism, one-to-many, to a many-to-many model, rooted in conversations between authors, people, and peers.

The discussion continues, inspiring modified definitions that are both brilliant and sometimes inexact. Perhaps uniting around a common definition is implausible.

As Social Media evolves it elicits advocates and experiences as it migrates from the edge of early adoption to the center of prevalence.

But as it pursues ubiquity, Social Media, as a designation, is largely misunderstood and as such, guides many practitioners away from their true opportunity and purpose. Their social compass is unknowingly misaligned and what should point to true North may in fact, displace their center of principles and values.

Indeed, Social Media was embraced by many and still continues to trend upward today as the methodologies and opportunities linked to it persevere, inspiring optimism and igniting ambition along the way.

However, the moment social media was christened, its path towards coalescence was imminent. Experts predict that as soon as 2010 or 2011, Social Media will simply merge into the ongoing development of New Media to set the stage for what’s next. Simply said, Social Media will eventually become “media,” representative of an important chapter in its advancement and transformation.

As I shared with Jennifer Leggio in a recent post on ZDNetthat collected 2010 predictions exploring the potential ubiquity of Social Media:

2010 will be the year that we save us from ourselves in social media…we will stop drinking from the proverbial fire hose and we will lean on filtering and curation to productively guide our experiences and production and consumption behavior and interaction within each network. 2010 will also be the year that leaders and pioneers stop referring to social media as a distinct category of media as they/we usher in an era of new collective and machine intelligence that improves collaboration and interaction – freeing us to focus on the engagement that engenders long term relationships.

It’s not so much what it’s called, but what it represents that counts for everything. This is the democratization of information and the equalization of influence. But, in the end, Social Media is only but a chapter in the evolution of New Media and the pages are slowly turning to the future.

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241 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Defining Social Media: 2006 – 2010”

  1. nice overview, Brian, and thanks for the mention.

    i think we're on the front end of something big, if we can acknowledge this potential power. social media is just human communication gone digital, an evolving process with its own set of nuances and flavors. but it's global and immediate, and that's never been possible before. just connecting online doesn't guarantee real world action, but it lays the foundation. as computing becomes more ubiquitous, and cheaper and easier to get connected, we're going to reach a critical mass – a tipping point.

    i mean, what happens when you give a billion people access to each other via an internet-enabled mobile device? we're going to find out.

    – @venessamiemis

  2. nealschaffer says:


    Thank you so much for sharing your history with us as well as this rich definition as to what social media is. I don't need to tell you that what you write is obviously bang on, because you have helped define the way in which we understand social media, but there are so many people who talk a lot about social media yet do not understand it in the same depth nor its historical roots. I believe this blog post of yours should be mandatory reading for everyone involved in social media!

    What I especially like about your definition is the “social” part of social media. I find too many people simply look at social media as a new broadcast medium and forget that it is really centered around people like you and me who are creating, sharing, and talking about content. We cannot be controlled, and neither can social media!

    As for social media evolving into New Media, this is without doubt. What will take shape is still years away, but I believe we are already starting to see glimpses of this in the way we use our cell phones and location-based services. When social media makes its way to the Living Room and the TV set, you'll know it's developed into something truly new…


  3. Ivan Walsh says:

    Hello Brian,

    I think there needs to be an 'acid test' at some point for SM to gain the traction that it promises.

    What I mean is that Radio was tested by TV, which was tested by Cable, which was tested by the Web etc.

    Once this plays out, SM will morph into media (esp with web+video).

    But, remember the world is not California. It will take 5-10 years for this to be realized world-wide.


  4. alejandrorecio says:

    It seem that social media has shortened the degrees of separation between every person in the world, becoming a source of real time information for every country. It has taken away the monopolization of the news from the networks and giving it back to the people. But like everything in life there are ways they can be manipulated and used to the advantage of different powers. Now that it has become part of the mainstream it has transformed into a whole different industry of communication, now is the time to start filtering what is productive and what isn’t.

  5. Great post Brian. I love the excerpt you pulled from Jennifer Leggio.

    I would also like to venture so far as to say that the “idea” or “concept” of social media began to emerge back in April of 1999 when the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto were written. While the entire list of 95 are all quite prophetic, here is a short list of my favorites:

    1. Markets are conversations.

    9. These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.

    19. Companies can now communicate with their markets directly. If they blow it, it could be their last chance.

    20. Companies need to realize their markets are often laughing. At them.

    25. Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.

    74. We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.

    84. We know some people from your company. They're pretty cool online. Do you have any more like that you're hiding? Can they come out and play?

    To read all 95, visit

    The website is a “read only” site and it appears just as it did in April of 1999.

    Best Regards,

    Nelson Bruton

  6. You said: Social Media is: “Any tool or service that uses the internet to facilitate conversations.” so most of the tools that we are using today are Social Media tools, right?

    What I'm doing now (posting a question on your blog), is that a Social Networking? Whats the difference?

  7. While surfing the internet today I decided to visit your blog once again and I have to admit I am very happy to have done so because this information is of amazing quality just like your other posts also.

    Mark McCulloch

  8. dmattcarter says:

    Thanks for stepping back from the chaos to provide a 30,000 ft view. We should all do that periodically.
    One sentence gave me pause: “This is the democratization of information and the equalization of influence.”

    Indeed, the wide adoption of Social Media does engender the democratization of information but, does it really equalize influence or does it merely shift power from it's traditional center. I'm currently working with a start-up called SOCIALtality (, and as we worked to select enterprise-level Alpha-testers, we've had the chance to talk with many large organization and gauge the effect that the rise of Social Media has had on them.

    Our contact at IBM felt that the recognition of the importance of Social Media, has taken power from the entrenched elite (individuals whose experience spans decades) and shifted it to the middle of the organization–A place of fairly recently hired people who've become adept at social media on a personal level and now possess a much sought-after skillset.

    Social Media has empowered a new class of person. Influence is now something that can be achieved through either actual merit/knowledge/hardwork or simple technical adeptness, rather than years of leadership. Good or bad? I guess we'll see.

  9. tomob says:

    Hi Brian:

    Another in a long series of thoughtful and helpful posts.

    I have to than @nelson below for his explicit reference back to the Cluetrain Manifesto – as I think it was the first major articulation of the priciples that animate SM today.

    Reading the post and looking again at the Social Marketing Compass I was struck by a lightning bolt. The reason brands struggle with social marketing is because they think they are at the center of the SM phenomena. They are not.

    SM (as called out by @venessa) is just people connecting with each other. The web (& associated tools) let us do it across the boundaries of time and space, with an addressable market of billions. But the behavior is old school, core human behavior. We want to find and connect with people who share our passions.

    So the problem for brands and SM Marketing is this. We talk to each other about things we care about. Mostly that is not brands. Brands are involved in helping us get what we want, but they are just means to an end. So the SM conversation is not about brands (primarily) or for brands (at all).

    What if you re-did the Social Marketing Compass with people in the middle instead of brands in the middle. Brands are not the Raison d'être of social media.


  10. DR1665 says:

    How sad is it that we're having to devote so much time and energy to defining social media?

    It's conversation, talk, communication. That's all it is.

    Am I a believer? Absolutely. I just find it hilarious most days to see so much discussion about what is essentially conversation. I suspect that anyone looking to do well in social media would do well to take a basic course in conversation skills and then start having conversations online. That's really all there is to it. Anything else is just buzz words and old world marketing gimmicks.

    I am a person. I am not a metric to be counted. Treat me like a person – like an equal – and I will let you (and the organization you represent) into my world. You wanted to plaster my web experience with banner and sidebar ads that flash or look like games and search utilities? I've got ways to block them. If you want to get involved in social media to create online communities for your own benefit, without genuinely having a conversation with me, I'll find ways to block you in this realm too.

    It's just so damn ironic. Digital conversation is really the future. There is unlimited potential for everyone in the world to collaborate, to grow, and to benefit. Anyone smarter than a rock can see that. Yet here we are, trying desperately to define and sell the idea of actually reaching out and talking to people.

    As if conversation is such a radical idea all of the sudden!

    Anyway. Good read today. Got me subscribing. Cheers.

    • cyuskoff says:

      I'm also tired of defining social media and defending it. I think by now, most have something in place and looking for ways to strengthen their strategies. But this post brought back some memories: I'll never forget in 2006 when I tried to convince my company to get on Myspace and how everyone thought I was crazy. Then, an LA Times article dropped on how companies were using Myspace to spread the word, and then we jumped onboard. So my point is, thanks for getting together with such influencers to discuss this revolution. What you have to say is very influential to many businesses.

  11. 2010 will be the year that we save us from ourselves in social media…we will stop drinking from the proverbial fire hose and we will lean on filtering and curation to productively guide our experiences and production and consumption behavior and interaction within each network.

    I think Jennifer's right on. Nice summary, Brian.

  12. Thanks for sharing this, Brian, terrific insights and visuals.

    I agree that social communications now have evolved to a point where they can be removed (or transition away from) from the handbasket of vertical offerings that marketers – particularly brand clients – tend to lean on and make an 'official' entry into the mainstream. With that said (and not to split hairs or defer to semantic claims), I'm not so sure that 'social media is just human communication gone digital', as Venessa mentions. It seems to me that the socialization of media is a function of culture – and its respective creation, recreation and adoption – that transcends or lives within experiences that are had online or off (or ideally, the combination of the two). In other words, all media is inherently social, and it is our responsibility as marketers to curate and extract mythology from everyday circumstance, even when we are – shame on us – prescribing messages or manipulating purchase intent (which, unfortunately, we are wired to do).

    Where I do believe digital is and will continue to be predominate is in catalyzing more relevant communications streams, as well as enlisting communities to more closely and responsibly moderate content in a publishing capacity (as you mention). As we have seen with this profound cultural shift, democracy does not come without the freedoms of its own chaos, and ubiquity must support a more meaningful discourse between people. Perhaps as advertising, PR, entertainment, media and publishing formally converge, the idea of 'people as media' becomes a reality, thus obviating the need to socialize and synchronize all of our outreach efforts accordingly. 2010 could very well be the breakout year…


    Gunther Sonnenfeld

    • ah, i shouldn't have said *just*… i'm usually more careful with that kind of this-or-that binary talk.

      but i like what you said about all media is inherently social; don't know if you saw this, but it was just brought to my attention, a really great read from a branding/marketing perspective – “There's No Such Thing As Social Media” by @Aerocles:

      and in response to your second point, about more meaningful discourse… i came across this really excellent piece this morning – 'Rethinking Education as the Practice of Freedom'; it's about critical pedagogy, but i think that there is very much an informal educational/learning process going on with our online interactions, and so though the article is geared towards the classroom, i think we can all learn something from it. it mentions the need for “critical thinking, self-reflection and imagination”, and i think those are generally critical 21st century skills. especially as our inboxes and information streams become so cluttered with crap, knowing how to efficiently filter content to tease out the good stuff is a necessary step towards media literacy. then knowing how to reflect upon that information and chew on it intelligently with others – well, like you said, that helps make you into a functioning participant in a democracy.


    • Gunther Sonnenfeld says:

      Venessa – no worries, I make the same mistake all the time 😉 In the true nature of shared currency, I've borrowed heavily from folks like Henry Jenkins, Faris Yakob and Jeff Gomez, so the perspective of media being naturally hypersocial is nothing new, but nonetheless should be considered more seriously.

      Thank you so much for these links, and what you say about media literacy is too true — these interactions are all formative points in our daily paths to self-realization… or dare I say, enlightenment. Whether we can construe them as social efforts or not, we are culture curators, first and foremost.

      If you or anyone else is interested, I have synthesized some of this thinking in a preso I recently did:

      A quick (or not so quick) aside, the educational piece you've linked to and the subsequent commentary about developing 'critical 21st Century skills' are very timely, as some colleagues and I are building a new transmedia platform in conjunction with Stanford's IFTF and the University of Waterloo, that focuses on educational reform, infrastructure enhancement and microfinancing initiatives at the local level. It would be fantastic (and a great honor) if we could enlist the talents of people like yourself, Brian and other great social thinkers in this development. One thought is to hold a TED-like brainstorm, and disseminate the information as shareable media that could support a variety of causes.


    • briansolis says:

      “functioning participant in a democracy” or a productive member of a society that benefits and grows because of our active contribution.

  13. James Ball says:

    When I came to my senses today after the snow flurries deemed “blizzard” here in Georgia…I remembered that you said you would post this today. I typed on over to see, and here it is! Like a Christmas morning it was to me. I love the piece Brian. I forgot – you didn’t. I appreciate this as well.

  14. Hi Brian – I am keen to contibute to the debate from a UK pov, on behalf of New Media Corp, so can you please tell me if there is scope to join the group behind the Social Media Manifesto (June 07) and if there are any plans to revise this in 2010? Thanks.

  15. daniela says:

    thanks for all your latest post. actually, for the whole blog. it's really helping me for school.

  16. What intrigues me is what lies beyond today's internet social fauna. There is already some form of social overload on the net…who keeps up really…

    To be in you have to be everywhere…It becomes old quick…The future of this passes by some level of integration of the socialites and their activities…

    When you sit at your computer, where do you go…Google pretty much centralized access to the so called non social information out there. Where will our Social sessions start? Will it be Google that 'Gets it'?…again…with personalized search?

    I don't know, it makes me wonder because it gets tiresome….I wish I could get all this in one place…who will geet it? Who will win me over with simplifying my online presence….2010 will be interesting in deed…

    So where are we going Brian?

  17. Hasn't Social medi always been considered some form of media???

  18. Bill says:

    Brian I had registered for you company’s product. The social media compass. There has been a bit of misunderstanding regarding my use of your system. I was give a trial that didn’t go quite the way either of us wanted and I find that I was not able to use your system effectively.
    I was billed, I assume, inadvertently for $49.95 and I had communicated I thought that I wouldn’t be able to use the system properly.
    Since I can’t use the system and asked a rep for a refund as the trial was supposed to be extended and it wasn’t. I believe that a refund is in order as I was informed the individual who told me that a refund would be forthcoming wasn’t in a position to do so.
    I assumed that what he told me was accurate and took no further action. I am now told that the charge will stand even though I am not using the product. I do not think in any profession anyone who doesn’t want to use a product of mine should be made to pay for it. I wold hope as a professional who puts their credibility in delivering a product also will keep the same professionalism in refunding a charge that was erroneous and not acceptable to me.
    I was told i would have a call reeturned regarding this matter, but I only gor basicall a “too bad” email back and was threatened with blocking my phone and email if I pursued this matter. I will ot post it here, but I want to get this resolved.

    Bill Joyce
    you have my contact info I am sure. A young lady named Kris, I believe said asge was handling my “case”

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