Monday, January 28, 2013

Western-centric approaches to "defining" social media

The rapid and continuous technological and social changes embodied in the information revolution elicit a natural human effort to define the phenomena. Especially in this era of social media, when citizens everywhere can create content, there is a booming business in defining and categorizing "social media."   To the extent that this business contributes to better understanding and a better ability to manage, use or cope with "social media," it seems a worthwhile endeavor.  However, the effort to define social media should be approached with the following considerations in mind.

  • The constancy of change has occupied philosophers over the ages.  In Western philosophy, Heraclitus claimed that life is like a river, and one can never step into the same river twice.  In today's information age, one constant is continual, rapid change.  Social media are continuously changing, but to further complicate definition and classification, they are also converging as part of a pervasive socio-technical, mobile, digital and remote sensing revolution that is universal in its scope.
  • Media have always been social in certain respects.  Unfortunately, the definitions put forward by many bloggers and creators of online content are ahistorical in this regard, suggesting that the social aspects of media began with Facebook.   Such an approach is limited and even overlooks the rather profound social character of Google which explains its dominance as a search engine.
  • Most of the available definitions of "social media" are published in English language journals, newspapers, blogs or other media and are blatantly Western-centric.  The vast majority of such definitions ignore the reality and experience of millions of South Koreans who socialized on Cyworld during the half decade or so before Facebook was launched in the U.S.
  • As most observers and users of social media would probably agree, the internet and web-based revolution that gave birth to the current infatuation with "social media" is still in its infancy.
Despite the above realities, there is a natural human tendency to seek a short, simple, one sentence definition of "social media."   However, knowledgeable observers, whether from government, industry, academia or just plain citizens, will avoid that temptation.  As one former high-level policymaker in South Korea put it to me in a discussion last Fall about ICT-related government policymaking, "we do not know how far and how deep the changes will go."

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