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Defining social blah

I’ve just read The Guardian blog post of their Media Summit event in which the great and the not-so-great speak:

"Tom Coates, tech developer at Yahoo!
is asked to explain exactly what social media is, and struggles. He
concludes that social media sites have a sum of parts much more
valuable as a resource than thier constituent parts. There is a lack of
clarity in this area, he concedes, and not a little confusion. Even the
terminology of social media is changing fast. "Online community’ is
redundant, ‘social network’ is becoming so and ‘no-one really knows
what ‘social media’ means. Hmmm. But, says Coates, they all have one
thing in common – they tend to be viral."

And not being able to ‘define’ it is a problem of sorts.  If you can’t translate a phenomenon for others to understand then well you can’t influence it as you may want.  So this got me thinking about how to define ‘social media’ and even if
we *should* define it…surely the very fact that the semantics of the
phenomonon are ‘slipping’, the signifier itself grappling for ground
shows that digital media is changing and unstable… that in essence
it’s like a world speeded up; a social world speeded up. 

Has the distinction between digital and non-digital lost it’s meaning?  Can we not describe digital phenomenon by analogy to
existing ‘non-digital’ phenomenon, for example as MySpace being in it’s
‘form’ as similar to the ‘yearbook’ in high school?  People never
struggled to define the yearbook did they, sure there were politics around its form [how its constructed etc] but what it represented was quite ‘solid’?  They never said ‘how do we
monetise the yearbook’?  It was just inherently social, part of the
fabric of institutional life.  Yet, because social media is somehow
still couched within ‘technological’ discourses we somehow view it
differently; it’s tainted, a reified social distinct from our ‘real’
social and I think that’s the rub – we’re stuck thinking of the medium and not the practice, not the relationships.  And the medium is seen as a ‘pure’ entity with ‘natural’ strengths and weaknesses rather than constituted from its parts and its ‘context’. 

I think the more we come to talk about the specifics of how we
use different media for different communications and relationships and
develop a language around that specificity – as ‘kids’ [agh!] already
do – the more the distinction between the ‘solid’ ‘real’ modern world
and the ‘liquid’ modernity of the web will meld.  And it shouldn’t be just "let’s look what the kids are doing", because many kids are not prescient in any meaningful way and also because edges of society can be more telling in  other ‘non-youthful’ areas as Alice riffs with reference to Grandma’s taking up Freecell [Solitaire].

[ addendum: apparently The Guardian post misrepresented Tom.  Another sign of slippage].
 

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