Word-of-Mouth and Referral Marketing Blog

What IS social media?

In a previous post, we grumbled about definitions of social media that were too complicated or too vague. We were determined to do better.

We wanted a definition that effectively described the most fundamental elements of social media, and nothing more. After many heated, caffeine-fueled arguments, this is what we came up with.

Social media is:

Any set of equal nodes that can publish and subscribe to each other’s information feeds.

It might sound rather technical, but it’s not too complicated, we promise. Here’s a diagram we put together that makes it a little easier to visualise:


Shall we dig deeper? Let’s begin by analysing each of the components separately.

1: What’s a node?

Most simply, a node is a point in a network.

  • Every network has a set of characteristic data types. The data being transmitted through the network defines the network. In the postal system, it’s mail. On Twitter, it’s tweets. On YouTube, it’s videos and comments.
  • A node is any entity that can send or receive these data types. A Twitter account is a node in the Twitter network because it can send and receive Tweets.
  • A node doesn’t have to be a specific individual. It simply needs to be able to send or receive information. A radio station is a node because it can transmit information, even though it’s not a single individual.

2: What do equal nodes mean?

  • Equal nodes have the same capacity for transmitting and receiving information.  For instance, every telephone set in a telephone network can make and receive calls, just like every other telephone set in the network. In contrast, a network of unequal nodes (such as a TV network) has nodes with different capacities to transmit and receive information. The TV station can transmit information to the TV sets, but TV sets cannot communicate with each other, or with the station.
  • Equal in capacity does not mean equal in influence. One Twitter account may have millions of followers and another might have none, yet they both have equal capacity to transmit and receive information.

3: What does ‘publish’ mean?

Traditionally, publishing meant “to announce, to declare, to make public.” This still applies here.


  • A message is published when it is made accessible to nodes that aren’t addressed in the message. In the diagram above, A addresses his message to B, but it’s accessible to C and D as well.
  • The nature of publishing allows for messages without specified addressees. A telephone system doesn’t allow you to make a phone call to “anybody who might be interested.” Publishing does. This has some very interesting implications on social dynamics, which we’ll explore in our next post.

4: What about ‘subscribe’?

  • Subscription is when a node elects to receive updates from another node. If you subscribe to a magazine, you’ll periodically receive the magazine in the mail for as long as the magazine is in business, and the postal service is in working order. (Until you unsubscribe.)
  • In Twitter, for example, subscription is just a matter of clicking a Follow button. Tweets from the user you just followed will then start appearing in your feed, without them specifically addressing you. Simple!

5: Okay. So how do you tell if something should be considered Social Media or not?

First, observe the system you want to analyse.

  1. Identify its characteristic data types. What’s the stuff that’s being sent around? Videos? Pictures? Tweets?
  2. Identify the set of nodes. Who or what is sending and receiving the data?
  3. Of these, identify nodes that have the capacity to publish as well as the capacity to subscribe. (If a node can publish to A and subscribe to B, it stays.)
  4. Of these, is there a subset of equal nodes? Is there a subset of nodes in which all nodes have the same capacity to publish and subscribe as every other node in the subset?

This might get a little tedious, so we took the trouble of doing some analysis for you:

1: Characteristic data types2: Set of nodes3: Nodes that can publish AND subscribe4: Is there a subset of equal nodes?Is It Social Media?
Postal MailMailSender, RecipientNone. All mail is addressed directly to recipient. No publishing or subscription involved.N/ANo.
SMSSMSPhonesNone. All SMSes are addressed directly to recipient. No publishing or subscription involved.N/ANo.
PhonePhone CallsPhonesNone. All phone calls are made directly to recipients. No publishing or subscription involved.N/ANo.
Company NewslettersNewsletterCompany, CustomersNone. Company cannot subscribe to customers. Customers cannot publish newsletters.N/ANo.
WikipediaArticles, Talk pagesWikipedians, Wikipedia pagesWikipedians automatically publish a feed of their edits, and can subscribe to Wikipedia pages. Wikipedia pages cannot subscribe to any nodes.No, Wikipedians cannot subscribe to each other.No.
NewspapersNewspapersNews Organization, ReadersNone. News Organizations cannot subscribe to readers. Readers cannot publish newspapers.N/ANo.
FM RadioRadio showsRadio Stations, Radio SetsNone. Radio stations cannot subscribe to radio sets. Radio sets cannot publish radio shows.N/ANo.
TelevisionTV showsBroadcast Stations, TV SetsNone. TV stations cannot subscribe to TV sets. TV sets cannot publish television shows.N/ANo.
WhatsAppChat message (includes text, images, audio)Whatsapp Users, Group ChatsWhatsApp users can subscribe and publish to group chats. Group chat cannot subscribe to any other nodes.No, WhatsApp users cannot subscribe to each other.No.
WarriorForumForum Posts on WarriorForum (WF)WF Users, Forum ThreadsWF Users can publish posts and subscribe to threads. Forum threads cannot subscribe to any other nodes.No, WarriorForum Users cannot subscribe to one another’s feeds.No.
Stack OverflowStack Overflow (SO) questions, answers, commentsSO Users, question threadsSO Users can subscribe to question threads, and can publish answers. Question threads cannot subscribe to any other nodes.No, Stack Overflow Users cannot subscribe to one another’s feeds.No.
LiveJournalBlogposts, CommentsLiveJournal UsersLiveJournal users can publish and subscribe to other LiveJournal users.Yes, LiveJournal users.Yes!
TwitterTweetsTwitter ProfilesTwitter users can publish and subscribe to other Twitter users.Yes, Twitter users.Yes!
TumblrTumblr Posts (Text, Audio, Images, Video)Tumblr UsersTumblr users can publish and subscribe to one another.Yes, Tumblr users.Yes!
PinterestPicturesPinterest UsersPinterest users can publish and subscribe to one another.Yes, Pinterest users.Yes!
FacebookFacebook Posts (Text, Image, Video), commentsUsers, Pages, GroupsUsers, Pages and Groups all publish information. Pages can subscribe to other Pages, but not to Users or Groups. Groups cannot subscribe to any other node.Yes. Facebook Users can subscribe to each other’s feeds by “Add Friend” or “Follow”. Facebook Pages can also subscribe to each other’s Feeds by “Liking” each other. However, they cannot subscribe to individual Facebook Users.Yes!
Google+G+ Posts (Text, Images, Video)Users, Pages, GroupsUsers, Pages and Groups all publish information.Yes. G+ Users can subscribe to each other’s feeds by “Adding To Circles”.Yes!
LinkedInLinkedIn PostsUsers, Pages, GroupsUsers, Pages and Groups all publish information.Yes. LinkedIn Users can subscribe to each other by “connecting”.Yes!
InstagramPhotosInstagrammersInstagram users publish photos, and can subscribe to one another by “Following.”Yes, Instagrammers.Yes!
SpotifyMusic PlaylistsSpotify UsersSpotify users can publish playlists and subscribe to each other’s playlists.Yes, Spotify users.Yes!
YouTubeVideosYouTubersYouTubers can publish videos to their channelsYes, YouTubers.Yes!
QuoraQuestions, answers, commentsQuorans, question threadsQuestion threads cannot subscribe to one another, or to Quorans. Quorans can publish and subscribe to one another’s feeds.Yes, Quorans.Yes!
RedditSubmissions, CommentsRedditors, SubredditsSubreddits cannot subscribe to one another, or to Redditors. Redditors can publish to subreddits, and subscribe to both subreddits and other Redditors. Notably, every Redditor has their own feed.Yes. Redditors can subscribe to one another’s feeds (+Friend).Yes!
WordPressBlogposts, CommentsWordPress Users, Anonymous CommentersCommenters cannot publish their own blogs on the WordPress platform unless they become Users. WordPress Users can publish and subscribe to one another’s blogs.Yes, WordPress users.Yes!

That’s all for now, but more to come!

We went down this rabbit-hole in pursuit of the answer to “What Is Social Media?”, but we believe that we’ve also stumbled upon answers to “Why does social media matter?” and “What are the consequences of social media?”, and even “Why are so many people annoying on social media?”

We’re going to have a lot of fun exploring those questions.

We hope you find this framework useful in navigating and thinking about social media! Let us know if you have any thoughts, questions, ideas, corrections or suggestions.

EDIT: A few people have asked us if they can use our image for their slideshows, presentations, etc. Go right ahead! We’d love you if you leave the ReferralCandy logo in, and linked to this post or credited us in someway, but otherwise we’re really happy that people like our definition enough to use it. 🙂 

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?

Visakan Veerasamy

Visa is ReferralCandy's Blog Editor. He also co-founded Statement.sg, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's been thrice named a Top Writer on Quora. He hopes to enjoy a glass of whiskey onboard a commercial space flight someday.


  • Thanks for pointing this out to me. I particularly like the Venn diagram, and it fits well with where i think SM is – the juncture between one-to-one (telephone, telegraph) and one-to-many (broadcast) communication. Of course, I’m starting to think there is distinct such thing as social media, it’s all just the natural evolution of the Internet. Might be less sexy to think of it in that way, but it also means its here to say and more than just a passing fad.

    • Hey Jerry! Awesome to hear from you. I totally agree- 20 or 30 years from now, the idea of “social” media might be completely irrelevant, because it’s simply… media. How we see and interact with the world. Wait till they give us interfaces to implant directly into our brains…

      EDIT: Did I say 20-30 years? It’s probably going to be more like… 5 years.

  • All media (or mediums) is social, some individual or group of individuals created the ‘content’ on the medium. “Social Media” is a terrible phrase, because it assumes that previous media or platforms were NOT social. Before you say “But they’re totally not social because they are just broadcasting a one-way-message!” hold your tongue and read on.

    The word media is being DISTORTED to mean “the information coming from news sources, or social networks”. Media is plural of medium, meaning the platform. The words “Content” and “Media” are being confused. The old mediums for information to spread were perhaps LESS social since it was more difficult to interact. Everything is just ‘more connected’ now, but it was still social. Just because it was broadcasted doesn’t make it ‘not social’, some individual or group of individuals sat down and decided to write it, then use the PLATFORM (mediums/channels) to broadcast it to an audience of other people. That is SOCIAL- of or relating to society or its organization. The old platform was SOCIAL because other people could tune in and listen to it or turn on the telly and watch it, or buy the newspaper and read it, there is always an organization or people behind the content, if they wanted to find out who wrote it or produced it they could get in touch, it just required a lot more effort… but it was people sharing ideas with other people…. social.

    We’re getting “nodes and subscriptions” confused with “People or Groups – and, Channels/Lines of Communication”. The reason this is happening is because we’re trying to assume that there is a real difference between old mediums/platform and new mediums/platforms – when the only difference is more open lines/channels of communication between individuals. The telephone could be used as a broadcast platform (telemarketing, robo-calls) if the message was recorded it could then be published. Perhaps they were not designed for that- but people like to share. I can ‘subscribe’ to receive updates from my friend by adding their number into my phone and answering their calls / getting sms . I can subscribe to receive updates from the newspaper organization because I apply to receive the paper, with the new radio (podcasts) I can subscribe to channels. The New YouTube: I can subscribe to “user” (hat this word too!) channels, before the media that was created was organizational, now it is individual & organizational, because there are simply more open lines of communication.

    Now we have social networks, that are just another way to LIMITEDLY communicate with others on a network. Except individuals can now write the message as well as organizations! The networks amplify the messages because anyone can write and broadcast the message. Social Networks are communication channels between individuals AND organizations (not just organizations) that are always open and create more links between individuals and organizations (unless you shut down your account or don’t log in…. or the government shuts it down).

    Facebook and Twitter are Social Networks…. just one of many Media (Mediums) that include newspaper/tv/radio/ or other method of sharing information via communication.
    Media has unfortunately become another word for content found on the networks, or in newspapers, etc- and this is part of the unfortunate confusion. Media does NOT MEAN Content or Message, but I believe that soon this definition may be added to the dictionary, causing untold confusion.

    Content / Messages / Stories , etc… are created by people, and then received (watched/viewed/read/consumed) by people. Media is plural for Mediums, which are the PLATFORMS that the content is communicated through. “Communication Mediums” are inherently SOCIAL because you need to communicate a message between two or more people for it to be communication. Even though a radio broadcast can be a one-way-message from one individual to thousands, doesn’t mean it was not a communication!!!!
    The message was communicated from one to another or one to many. This is inherently social- how is it not???

    The reason why you’d have such a hard time describing ‘social media’ is because it is actually just ‘media’, and it always has been, because the world “media” means “mediums” or Synonym: “Channel” ie. Communication Channel! If you don’t understand this you’ll be running in and endless circle trying to define something that isn’t a thing.

    The term ‘Social Media’ seems to have stuck because it was shorter to say and people who don’t know what a “Social Network” is just found it easy to refer to it as “Social Media” instead of “Messages / Stories / or Content that is found on a Social Network or Social Medium”.

    • Hey, thanks for sharing!

      I agree with your interpretation that all communication is inherently social, and that media is the plural of medium. If we take these to be axioms, then social media is a meaningless, redundant and confusing term.

      Here’s how we’re approaching it: Social Media, whether we like it or not, is a term that’s stuck, and is around to stay. People are using it, and they’re going to continue using it to signify a range of things.

      While all communications might be inherently social, people are using the term social media to signify something distinct and unique. What is that? That’s the question we’re trying to explore. What makes something special, that makes it deserve a unique name?

      Email is social, but nobody calls it social media. By your logic, nobody should call ANYTHING social media- and I do accept the internal consistency of that logic. It makes perfect sense. But that hasn’t caught on.

      Also, I agree that media does not mean content or message- media is the means through which content is transmitted.

      Where you say “the only difference is more channels”, I’d say that “more is different”. Once we cross a certain threshold, the increase in X leads to a behavioural change in the entire beast.

      I believe I do understand your perspective, but I also think that it’s at odds with the reality of how people are using these terms. I believe that there’s space for further exploration of this issue (progressive increase of channels -> changes in phenomena), and maybe we’ll do another post about that. But that’s beyond the scope of this post- all we’re trying to do is to make the term “social media” a little less meaningless than it currently is.

      Cheers, and thank you so much for your thoughts!