Is this social media? No.

Is this social media? No.

tin can phones by StockMonkeys-comIs a conference call social media? Again: no.

“Social media” needs a more narrow definition so that not just any device that allows us to have real-time interaction would qualify. If social media cannot be identified as distinct from every single form of communication that exists, then there is no point in using the term.

Here is how I define social media

Social media must have a “broadcast” quality to it. It must have one-to-anyone-“listening” functionality, with the ability for real-time interaction between audience and creator, and the ability to rebroadcast (re-share) the content. And, it must be accessible over the Internet.

(I do go on here, but the above is the nutshell. Skip to examples.)

That last bit is what distinguishes it from the nut screaming on the corner. And, yes, phones are devices that can access the Internet too. Don’t define the medium by the device. That’s old-school.

It is pointless to define social media as just any technology that allows one-to-one or one-to-many interaction. While it is possible to restrict an audience on a social media platform (say, to reach just class members, or just CE-L subscribers), any restriction on the audience diminishes the social media, puts a limitation on the medium. It becomes a less-social media.

The suggestion that Skype and FaceTime are social media because people can share “files” lacks understanding that these media are still one-to-one or one-to-my-group interactions. They are not public broadcast systems. If “file sharing” is the definition, any FTP site is social media. Clearly that is not so.

Your feet would be social media under that definition, since they can carry a file to someone else. A mailbox would be social media too. Well, if they were electronic devices, maybe.

Key ingredients that define social media

But those technologies can only share a “file” person-to-person, not person-to-anyone-on-Skype. If we are trying to use terms as understood by the masses, Skype is not social media. The key ingredients in social media are, as I said above:


  • broadcast to the masses
  • built-in ability for masses to interact with creator and other audience members and engage all in discussion
  • often in real time
  • using a device over the Internet
  • ability to rebroadcast or share content within that system


Otherwise, a telephone is social media, and so is the letters-to-the-editor section in a newspaper. Flyer mail would be social media too — because we can always call the company that sent it to us.

We can wax philosophical and technical (legal), but that just gets us closer to classifying absolutely everything as social media — and that is both not helpful and not the way the term is used.

The device is not the medium

Finally, don’t confuse the device with the medium. Telephone may have a specific definition in telecommunications regulations, but people are using the term telephone or call more generically today to mean “any voice interaction.”

It’s not like anyone says “cell me” when they are going to use a cell phone; and cell phones are regulated by discrete sections of the telecommunications act (in Canada).

So, just because an interaction (such as email or texting) occurs via a smart phone, that doesn’t make it social media. Just because you’re socializing doesn’t make it social media. The device is not the medium.


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Examples of social media that fit the definition

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Pinterest
  • LinkedIn (though more work than social, really)
  • MySpace

Examples of social media that lie on the margins of the definition

  • Tumblr
  • Flickr
  • Google+ Hangout
  • Quora
  • Any blog
  • Email listserv-type services
  • Any radio or television broadcaster’s web presence
  • That thing that no one uses anymore that let you “check in” at a place and find nearby friends

Examples of mediums for socializing but that are NOT social media

  • Skype
  • FaceTime
  • Email
  • Your phone, even if it IS a smartphone
  • The cafe
  • A private Google+ Hangout (not broadcasted in any way)

How many media fall under my definition of social media?

Lots. Just click the “share” icon below this post and you’ll see that there are dozens of social media platforms that you and I have never even heard of. That little plug-in includes an email option, but I think that is user-driven rather than falling under the definition of social media.

Check the Storify for updated resources.

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