What Is Social Media? A Deeper Look Into Its Definition

Let's explore what social media really is

An image graphic of a social media concept.

Not many people ask the question “what is social media?” anymore. It’s been around for years now, and most us would probably consider its definition to be something along the lines of “websites that help us communicate with each other.”

But social media is much more than that. Here’s a bit of a deeper analysis of what social media actually is and isn’t.

Defining Social Media

Researchers Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein provide a good definition of social media in a 2009 study:

“Social Media is a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technical foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content.”

In other words, social media is really just any internet medium that can be used to share information with others. In fact, “social media” is a broad enough term that can be used to describe a number of platforms including blogs, forums, applications, games, websites and other stuff.

But what exactly is so “social” about sitting on a computer scrolling through you Facebook feed of information from 500 friends you barely know, or setting up a WordPress blog and blogging for days without generating any type of readership? If you ask anyone, they might consider it to be way more anti-social than anything.

Social media is not a “thing.” It’s not just Twitter and Facebook and MySpace and YouTube and Instagram. It’s more of a frame of mind and a state of being.

Social media is more about how you use it as a tool to enhance your relationships with other people in real life. Ironically, we tend to rely on technology and social media so much that it can actually tear those relationships farther apart.

Lots of People, Lots of Information

Here's what social media isn’t all about. It isn’t about numbers. People are led to believe that numbers mean power, but more important is the number of people who are actually listening and engaging.

When someone says “social media,” web giants like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube instantly pop into our minds, often because they have the most people using them and the most information being pushed out every second of every minute.

We tend to get distracted by them numbers game, thinking “volume, volume, volume.” More updates, more friends, more followers, more links, more photos, more everything.

It’s led to a lot of meaningless noise and information overload. As the old saying goes, quality over quantity is usually the way to go.

So, no. Social media is NOT just about lots of people pushing around lots of information.

The “IRL” Factor

IRL is an internet slang term that's often used by hardcore gamers and computer nerds. It stands for “In Real Life," and is used to distinguish any type of situation that happened while interacting usually face to face with other people rather than simply just online.

Here’s how to look at it: Social media needs to have an “IRL” factor, meaning that it should affect how a person thinks or acts offline. After all, social media shouldn’t be an end in itself. It was built to enhance your actual social life, in real life.

Take for example an event that a person attends because they were invited by the host on Facebook through a Facebook event page. Something like that definitely has the IRL factor. Likewise, an Instagram photo that moves someone so much they feel the need to bring it up and describe it to someone else during a dinner date also as the IRL factor.

But is it really considered to be social to spend an hour scrolling through photos on Tumblr or stumbling a bunch of pages on StumbleUpon, with no thoughtful or emotional effect triggered by any of the images and no interaction with others about the subject matter?

Not everything on social networking sites has the IRL factor for everybody, and it’s often a result of information overload, as described earlier.

Social Media: A Frame of Mind

Social media is not a specific place on the internet or just a thing you use to see what other people are doing. It’s an inexact term used to describe how real, emotional transmission is sparked to affect our real lives, not just our internet lives.

There is no wall between real life and internet life where true social media exists. It’s all about creating meaningful experiences and relationships wherever you may be.