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February 4, 2010
What Do They Mean By Social Anyway?

Many of us take for granted the meaning of the word “social” when we think of social media and social networking. But what does it really mean?

The term carries multiple meanings. For the techie, social software is most likely built using Web 2.0’s foundational technologies, AJAX, asynchronous JavaScript and XML. And while this definition might impress your friends or help you in a game of Internet trivia, it isn’t very helpful in determining the socialness (sociability?) of a particular site or tool.

From the perspective of people using the site, sociality (see how many forms of the word you can create) can probably be defined as:

The ease and variety of ways in which a visitor to a site can create, comment on, add to, and share the content on that site, and create relationships with others doing the same.

By this definition, Facebook is probably the most social site. Facebook offers status updates 420 characters in length, easy sharing of links, videos and images, a one-click “Like” button, blog networking to display personal and business blog updates on Facebook, connections to Twitter and other social networks, and so on. Facebook arguably has more social features and more ease of use than any other site. That doesn’t make it better or worse just more social (by this definition).

Facebook also makes it easy to create relationships with others in more ways than other sites. In addition to search tools and detailed profiles, Facebook generally uses real, full names instead of “handles,” so people are easier to find. Facebook also recommends new friends, and does a good job making the activities of people visible to others with whom they are not yet connected, encouraging a network effect.

What are the least social sites on the Web? Any traditional Web site, with no provisions for user participation except perhaps a contact form, is certainly unsocial. But some sites thought of as social media aren’t really, or aren’t much. I’ve often heard Craig’s List called a social network or a social media site. I don’t think it is one. It has a few features that might seem social, like flagging posts, and some discussion forums, but the site is decidedly anti-social Web 1.0. Most wikis aren’t that social either.

Which raises a second question – Can socialness be added to an existing Web site or must it be built in from the start?

Part of what makes Twitter and Facebook successful social sites is that they were designed specifically to be social. Social functionality is natural and seamless on these networks. LinkedIn, on the other hand, was launched during the pre-social Web period, and for a time, struggled to become more social. Some of the additions the company made last year, particularly the LinkedIn developer platform, have really helped LinkedIn get up to date, and more importantly, made it easier and more rewarding for people to interact with LinkedIn through their other networks.

There are many non-social sites that seem natural candidates for social features. One of these is eBay. There are so many common interest groups built in to eBay’s 88 million users, like auto enthusiasts, antique collectors, and crafts people. There is a wealth of content (hate the word but it’s the one that works) on eBay around which conversations ought to spring up naturally. With over 11 million movie fans, Netflix also seems to be a candidate for “going social.”

In some cases, the addition of social technology to an existing network can be transformational. Hyperlocal restaurant and retail site Yelp took its existing network of 26 million users, who visit the company’s regular web site, and gave them an iPhone app with the capability to check-in live at restaurants, clubs, theaters and other locations. Companies like Brightkite and Foursquare built their iPhone local check-in app first, and then went out to build networks of users. Yelp already has 26 million users, so their network will quickly (as those who own iPhones download and begin to use the app) eclipse every other network of this kind.

Often, attempts to make a site more social, fail. For example, Facebook’s “Like” button is too ambiguous to be effective. If someone on Facebook posts an item about the number dead in the earthquake in Haiti, and someone clicks the “Like” button, chances are they are indicating that they are thankful to have current information, not that they like the implications of the article. But it’s often hard to tell. And Facebook places a “Like” button next to advertising, some of which is likeable and some of which is decidedly not, or is so mundane as to not merit liking/disliking it.

A recent item on the NBC Washington Web site offered visitors a series of six buttons marked Furious, Intrigued, Sad, Bored, Thrilled, and Laughing, so they could comment on the article with a single click. This is more a novelty than anything else. Its informational value is questionable.

Another example of misplaced sociality is the comment capability that so many online newspapers have added to their sites. The problem with this feature is that most newspapers offer commenting on every article. The San Jose Mercury News, for example, allows comments on every article, including commodities reports. I have never seen a comment on a commodities report. Ideally, online newspapers could apply the commenting feature to certain classes of news that merit discussion, although the day may come that a seemingly insignificant commodities report becomes a very important news story worthy of discussion.

It’s encouraging that Web 2.0 sites are finding new ways to allow user participation, and that traditional media outlets are looking into ways of adopting social media.

But one should not ask, “What is our social media strategy?” but instead, “What are our business and communications objectives and how can social media help us achieve them?” This will reduce the occurrence of one-size-fits-all and feature-driven vs. strategy-driven social media initiatives.

If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to add me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Thank you.

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Joel Postman is the principal of Socialized, a consultancy that helps companies make effective use of social media in corporate communications, marketing and public relations. He's the author of SocialCorp: Social Media Goes Corporate, a handbook designed to help corporate communicators and executives understand how to successfully adopt social business strategies in large companies. Prior to founding Socialized, he was EVP of Emerging Media at Eastwick Communications a Silicon Valley public relations firm, and before that, he has a decade of Fortune 500 corporate communications experience, including leadership roles in executive and internal communications at Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems.

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