Word-of-Mouth and Referral Marketing Blog

Social Media vs Social Networking: What’s The Difference?

This is a fun blogpost, written mostly for the sake of being unnecessarily pedantic. If you’re obsessive about the linguistic meaning of things, this is for you!

When they made a movie about Facebook, they called it The Social Network.

logo for The Social Network

So why then, do we now tend to say “In the age of social media” instead of “In the age of social networking”?  Is it just about convenience, or is there a meaningful, qualitative difference between the two terms?

I think it’s the latter.

Before we get into that, let’s get to the know the terms a little better.

Google search trends of “Social Media” vs “Social Network” show that the former was used less until 2009:

Social Media vs. Social Networks
“Social media” came from behind, taking the lead in 2010!

Prior to 2010, “social network” was more widely used than “social media”. (The spikes in searches at N and M are because of the Facebook movie.)

This feels consistent with the idea that social networking sites disrupted traditional media. Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter didn’t originally intend to become the way most people look for news: they were just trying to connect people together.

Becoming “media” was something they grew into, rather than set out to be.

To get a better sense of this, it’s helpful to visit some old slogans and descriptions of social networking sites in their earlier days.


Friendster: “Friendster is an online community that connects people through networks of friends for dating or meeting new friends.”


Myspace: “Myspace lets you share photos, journals and interests with your growing network of mutual friends.”


Facebook: “Thefacebook is an online directory that connects people through social networks at colleges.”


Twitter: “A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing?”

Twitter used to ask “What are you doing”. They now ask “What’s happening?”

That’s a subtle-but-significant change, from person-centric to event-centric. Evan Williams described this as a shift from being a social network to an information network.

It’s important to realize that nobody quite anticipated that Twitter would be the global nervous system that it is today. People did predict that the future would be interconnected, but nobody– not even the founders– looked at Twitter in 2006 and went “Yup, this is it.”

The infrastructure had to be built before alternate uses could be visualized. The idea of asking “What’s Happening?” might not have made as much sense at the time.

So social media never really set out to solve a “media” problem, or a “publishing” problem. Traditional media and blogs were doing that. Rather, they set out to solve a “networking” or a “communications” problem.

Defining social media:

A few blogposts ago, we set out to define social media. At the time we choose not to explicitly talk about social networks or social networking sites in particular, because it felt like unnecessary complication. The simplistic definition that we like is that social media is communications + publishing.


Within this framework, it’s clear that social networks were about communications. They set out to be an effective way of communicating. Along the way, they disrupted publishing. The ability to publish information isn’t a core function of a social network, but it’s absolutely fundamental to social media.

So the introduction of publishing (the ability to disseminate information at large) is what turned Facebook from “The Social Network” to something that news media organizations have to be concerned about.

Social Media = Social Networks + Publishing

This helps to answer some of the “grey area” questions: is it social media if there are just two people in a network? It doesn’t feel like it should be. But the same applies to a newspaper that you print in your bedroom, with just 5 copies per issue. “Media” is a declarative statement we use to describe something once it has a reasonably ubiquitous reach.

It’s about distribution. It’s about publishing. Online social networks were the backbone upon which social media was built.

Other posts in this sequence:

  1. What IS social media?
  2. Why is it so hard to define social media, and why should we care?
  3. What’s the difference between ‘social networking sites’ and social media?
  4. Why are people so annoying on social media?
  5. How did online social networks disrupt traditional media?
  6. How will social media change the way we live and consume?
  7. How to navigate social media effectively
  8. Curated Social Media Wisdom From Top Enterprise Experts [Infographic]


Visakan Veerasamy

Visa is ReferralCandy's former Blog Editor [2013–2018]. He also co-founded Statement.sg, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's mildly Internet-famous for his elaborate Twitter threads. He hopes to enjoy a glass of scotch onboard a commercial space flight someday.


  • Hi Visa, that’s a great explanation! I love how you managed to tie everything into a story, starting with the first social networks and showing how they changed the way we create and consume content.

  • It’s nice to come back to these old blogposts and see what we were working on at the time. We were trying to get a really good sense of what social media marketing was all about, and we figured that to do that, we’d have to develop an understanding of social media– and that turned out to be a whole new can of worms.

    I’m pretty happy that we did, though, because I feel like thinking hard about all of this has given me a greater sense of awareness and appreciation for what social media is all about, and what marketing in the digital age should be like.

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