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April 16, 2009

Why Social Media Sucks

by Josh Bernoff

(Republished from my Ad Age Digital Next contribution.)

Terminology matters.

As I speak with companies that want to engage with their customers in the online, social world, I continually find people confused -- as soon as they begin talking about "social media." The reason is the baggage that comes along with the word "media."

Media is something that media companies control, and media is overwhelmingly one-way. The online social world is about as two-way, multi-way, any-way as it can be. Nobody controls it, not even Facebook, which found it can't even change its own terms of service.

Media is something you can advertise in, in most cases. While you can advertise in social networks, that is the least interesting use for them.

Media is something people spend time with. So are online social interactions. That's a pretty tenuous reason to call it media.

Here are some words you can use to think more clearly.

If you want to refer to the whole world of people connecting and drawing strength from each other online, you can call it the Social Web, or the Social Internet. (Or you can call it the groundswell, if you wish.) This would include huge sites like MySpace, communities, YouTube, the blogosphere, and so on. (You could call the whole thing Web 2.0, but people often see this as referring to a set of technologies -- not the best way for advertisers to focus -- and doesn't get directly at the people-to-people aspects. The same applies to "social computing.")

If you want to build an environment where consumers or other customers connect with you and each other, call it a social application. This could include a community, a user-generated content site, or even adding ratings and reviews to your site. By calling these applications, you remind yourself that (1) it's going to take some effort to build it right, and (2) people will interact with it. And you may even remind yourself that (3) it could last a long time, rather than coming and going quickly as advertising campaigns and media do.

If you're going to participate in a big social site (Facebook, MySpace, even Twitter and YouTube fit this definition), call it a social network site (or just a social network, for short.) And you're often better off with a channel, or a profile, or an identity, than an ad in this environment, rather than an ad.

But no matter what you do, the sooner you stop thinking of the Social Web as media, the better off you are.


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Graeme Thickins

right on, Josh!

Keith Burtis

Josh, I totally disagree that the definition of Media is something that media companies control. Clearly by the nature of youtube, facebook and the thousands of other sites that empower anyone to create content (multi-media) has proven that wrong. However, I do understand your point that many of the new technology spaces that we play in have been poorly named and can draw vast misconceptions. (Especially to execs sitting in Ivory Towers)That being said, I think the companies that are creating compelling, and interactive media have a leg up in this new world we call social media.

I don't think that two way text interaction, customer service, and listening are the only tenants of social media. That is just the fluffy top level. From the developers building the infrastructure to the Leo Laportes streaming live over the net day after day to me are all forms of media generation. To be successful in this space as a company, individual or organization you are going to have to learn to create compelling and interactive media.

Social Media as a term might lead to misconceptions, but it is social and it is media.

Yann Ropars

Isn't it 3 kinds of people, the first kinds are the 'toolers': they abuse of words like 'social media sites' or they 'do social media' because they are on twitter or linkedin... they probably can't measure much effectiveness but can claim some expertise. On the other side, we have some companies who are truly generating quality 'media' the web 2.0 have allowed them to create quality content and distribute their content. Good for them and they have a chance to taste the groundswell, if they find the right passionate industry customers, they might be able to engage them...

All in all, social media is not used appropriately by the 'toolers'. Toolers are opportunistics. Quality media will rise above the noise.

I actually wrote a blog along the same line this week: Giv'em a hammer, giv'em a twitter http://extanz.com/2009/04/15/give-em-a-hammer-give-em-a-twitte

I'd love your thoughts.

Louise Mooney

Thank you Josh, can we make everyone follow this guideline, life would be so much simpler

Steve Furman

Was always a little put off by Forrester's term "Social Computing." Too techie and a bit sterile for me. Agree with the need to move away from "Media" but maybe for different reasons than you state. In my firm we are not spending that much (relatively speaking) on Social Media, but it's casting a very big shadow, so execs think we are spending a lot. That's a good news/bad news story. Thanks for giving me a new way to approach what we are trying to do. Still searching for that magic word. My president wants another update and supports us. My CMO has to manage his budget. That's my problem to solve.


Stuart Foster

Terminology is currently my Achilles heel in marketing at the moment. I still don't have the terminology down to where I can break down my knowledge into bite sized nuggets for c-level execs. I'm working constantly to improve this and this article will definitely help :). Thanks, Josh.


Josh, I like your use of the term "Social Web"... shorter, sweeter, not as restrictive. Seems more comfortable as a way to describe the overall phenomenon.


Debbie Curtis-Magley

Josh, I agree that the term "social media" is awkward. However, I believe the word "social" can lead to misperceptions about the value of these technologies. Executives may associate "social media" as something their kids do and overlook the ability of these tools to serve customers, cut costs and improve processes. I shared my thoughts on this topic last year at the Blog Council's blog http://tinyurl.com/cxeynr. Thanks for sparking conversation on this topic. I'm eager to see what other readers of your blog have to say.

Debbie Curtis-Magley


Josh, great article although I disagree with some of it. I don't think the "Media" part of it is something that media companies control. In most cases, this "media" is not controlled by media companies, but by the user groups themselves. However, I do like the Social Web moniker that you have given it
, a really interesting yet basic shortening.

Perhaps even just "Dialogue"? I guess this would save talking about social nodes and interconnections.

Stine Gotved

Once, the French sociologist Latour remarked something like this on his own work, the widespread Actor-Network-Theory: "there are only four problems - the words actor, network and theory, and the hyphens". It seems that we have a similar problem here - 'social' and 'media' are both open for contextual interpretation, likewise (but to lesser extent?) are web and network.
In my struggle with the terminology I've tried to revitalize 'virtual' that somehow seems to cover the serious+social+technology ground - e.g. virtual network. Sometimes I do 'digital' as well, when 'virtual' seems too sci-fi. We truely are in a linguistic area where the reality moves faster than our possibilities to describe it!
Thanks for sharing this! /Stine

Leif Utne

Great post, Josh. Count me as another vote for "social web" as a general term. Not sure, though, how well that works in the enterprise social software space, versus terms like "enterprise 2.0" or "enterprise social media" which describe both intranets and networks that bridge internal- and external-facing communities. I'm still noodling on that one.

Leif Utne
@foglio / @zanby

Gordon Rae

Media means, literally, the stuff in between. Before the 20th century, that meant oil paints, canvas, plaster. Then it mean celluloid, radio, TV, vinyl.

The web is a medium, but all new social stuff is new genres on the web. Like novels or newspapers were genres of printing.

The important thing is that ye olde media (1400 - 2000) were all one-way and impersonal. This is the first time we've had a public written culture as conversational and inclusive as oral culture.


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Josh, I like your use of the term "Social Web"... shorter, sweeter, not as restrictive. Seems more comfortable as a way to describe the overall phenomenon.
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Atul Chatterjee

Yes media has a connotation of ownership. It is not a matter of definition. However, a lot of usage is decided by the number of people using a term. Over time that becomes a de facto standard. So I guess we will have to live with Social Media Optimisation and such like terms.

Vijay Rayapati

I totally disagree with the presumption that "Media is something that Media Companies control" - it is just because of the underlying fact that with traditional media tools there was no way for consumer to be participative.

But consumers are moving from the passive consumption state to active participation age - they want to have a say in everything that is related to them in one way or other. so relating social web platforms as social media is fine.


Social Media doesn't suck; so-called social media consultants do, though. They're this generation's New Media cocaine-snorting douchebags who think they're affecting change.

Gopal Shenoy

Well said Josh. I like the word "Social web" but I think we have a bigger problem than what we should name it. It is amazing as to how many execs, consultants, PR agencies throw the word "social media" around without giving it a second of thought as to how it really is going to impact or improve the business. To me social web/media is all great but without an organizational commitment on how an organization is going to react to what they hear from prospects/customers, it is going to fail. Case in point, Motrin's recent debacle. It takes a lot more than creating a bunch of accounts on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook etc. and using it to push the press releases and other corporate marketing BS out.

And PR agencies and consultants are not helping the cause either - they do pretty presentations to execs on how they can help tap the social media and some of them don't have a clue on how to do it right.

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