What Is Social Media?

They Are the Tools People Use to Share Information

How to Define Social Media?

Social media quite simply are the technologies people use to communicate and socialize with one another, typically online.

"Social media" has evolved into a big buzz phrase for 21st century electronic communication tools of all kinds, however. Many people also use social media as a broader phrase to describe all kinds of cultural phenomena involving communication, not just the communication technologies themselves.

Often, for example, people use social media to describe the content that people create and share with electronic publishing tools; such material also is referred to as user-generated content.

Most forms of social media are electronic and allow people to communicate and interact with one another using computers, smart phones and the Internet. Social networks (such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest) are a subset or particular type of social media.

How Has the Social Media Definition Evolved?

To repeat, social media basically refer to the tools we use to communicate and socialize. Nothing more complicated than that. It's become a catch-all phrase for 21st century Internet media.

"Media" by itself, of course, has long been used to refer to the technologies people use to communicate. (Media is a plural noun, but people sometimes use it as a singular noun, too. The same holds for "social media.")

Since the Internet is making communication technologies more interactive and social, the term "social media" was coined to refer to the highly interactive qualities of newer forms of electronic media, which allow different ways of communicating and sharing information than traditional mass media such as TV, newspapers and radio.

Most early forms of Internet media were highly social, including bulletin boards, forums and popular online networks such as CompuServe and America Online. But the term "social media" didn't become popular until after 2000, when the rapid rise of social networks such as MySpace, Facebook and YouTube brought greater attention to online media-sharing.

The popularity of these new services sparked demand for a social media definition and new frameworks to understand the cultural and technological context in which they arose.

Social Media Definition Varies Widely: Can be Hard to Pin Down

Social media also sometimes refer to content created with social media tools, especially "user generated content" created by individuals on websites that encourage content creation and sharing. The content ranges from text messages to shared photos and viral videos.

Social media as a concept, though, typically refers to one of the most fundamental traits of all Internet media -- the ability to have two-way, or many-to-many dynamic information exchanges. People often define social media to mean tools and platforms that allow that online "conversations," thus emphasizing the many-to-many nature of the dialogue that results.

Many Categories of Communication Tools: Social Networking

Social media take many forms and include social networks, which, as previously stated, are a subset of the larger social media universe. Social networking specifically refers to services such as Twitter and LinkedIn, which provide online tools for making, organizing and managing connections between individuals and groups.

Typically, social networks allow people to form groups and allow communication among group members as well as between individuals.

Social Media Definition Includes Blogs, Wikis and More

Social media not only include social networks, but also blogs such as those created with Blogger and WordPress; and microblogging or instant messaging services such as Twitter. Wikis such as Wikipedia and others are forms of social media, too.

The social media definition is broad enough to include file-sharing technologies such as BitTorrent, video-sharing services such as YouTube, and photo-sharing services such as Instagram and Flickr.

There are literally thousands of other, more specialized services such as Meetup for events and Groupon for social shopping that qualify as social media, too.