Word-of-Mouth and Referral Marketing Blog

Defining Social Media: Why is it so hard to define social media, and why should we care?

It’s frustrating to talk about social media when we haven’t properly clarified what we mean by it. What is social media? How can you call yourself a social media marketer if you can’t quite explain, clearly, what it is?

Existing definitions of social media are either too vague or overly complicated.






“It’s all about the ideological foundations of Web 2.0.”

This is bad.

It’s hard to have a productive conversation if you can’t properly define what you’re talking about. We end up with trite soundbites and simplistic “insights”, which in turn compel us to act in ways that might be unproductive at best, and outright damaging at worst.

We need a better definition.

Why are our definitions so poor, anyway?

  • Staggering Complexity. It’s possible that social media might be too complex to ever be clearly defined. There are lots of different tools and technologies to make sense of, all of which are constantly changing. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, though.
  • The Curse of “Good Enough”.  Superior definitions can only arise through reiteration. We can’t make progress if we’re easily satisfied with our still-vague definitions.
  • Deception. This might be covert and even unintentional, but it can and does happen. “Experts” have an incentive to use terminology that is vague, imprecise or overly technical to exploit their “advantage” over people who’re relatively unfamiliar with the field.

How do weak definitions of social media hurt us?

  • Poor signal-to-noise ratio. The Internet is saturated with thin content that’s peppered with aphorisms and feel-good quotes. It’s hard to find genuinely useful, actionable information unless you already know what you’re looking for, or you’re willing to invest a significant amount of time searching and sorting through the noise.
  • Sub-optimal (or non-existent!) social media strategies. Social media strategies tend to be limited, unclear and imprecise. There’s typically no clear plan of action, no clear, measurable results. This leads to…
  • Resource wastage. Time and money both might be better spent elsewhere. You won’t know how to best utilize your resources until you have a clear idea of how things work and what’s most important.

What would better definitions achieve?

“Defining a problem is half the solution.”  

  • Clarity. Less time and energy will be spent navigating minor technicalities or broad, blunt ideas. Instead, it will be channelled towards…
  • Superior discourse. Better definitions will help nudge conversation towards exploring previously unchartered territories. Casual users and experts will both develop a superior understanding of the generalities and specifics of social media.
  • Greater Bang-For-Buck. It’ll be easier to talk about what’s effective at achieving goals when those goals are precise. We’ll all be better able to evaluate them, refine our practices and achieve our targets more efficiently.

By now you should be convinced that it’s a good idea to refine our definitions of social media. We’ll attempt to take a stab at that in our next post.

Stay tuned!

EDIT: Here we go, as promised: What IS social media?

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.

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