Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

All Media Is Social*

One of the side effects of being in the business I’m in is that I hear certain phrases a lot. I’ve learned to let go of the terminology and focus on the meaning, but every once in a while a term’s actual meaning belies a fundamental misunderstanding that deserves to be examined. So let’s talk about the term “social media” for a moment.

When people say “social media,” they usually mean things experienced on computers, specifically blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. This stands in contrast to all the other media that is presumably not social, like TV, radio, and print. But here’s the thing: all media is social. The new stuff just moves faster.

Let’s put aside the fact that media is, in actuality, lifeless and cannot be truly social. Humans are social, the stuff we make is a byproduct of that activity.

I ran a newspaper in the early 90s, and everything about it was social. The articles came out of meetings between real people, reported by people in social situations. When the paper was published, it was consumed by people in the community, and their responses were impossible to miss. When we pissed people off, we knew it. This was before mainstream email adoption, so we got actual letters, postcards, and phone calls.

Often that feedback made it into the next issue, which, in turn, created another round of feedback. It was a kind of slow-moving conversation, and it was entirely social.

This is true of all media. Radio has call-in shows, TV has audience feedback mechanisms (reviews, Nielsen’s). These older forms of media aren’t simply consumed and then forgotten – they are digested, discussed, and used to create the next generation of media. It’s social, it’s just slow.

Fast-forward to now. The very same process happens on blogs, Twitter streams, and Facebook walls. The only difference is time. The newspaper conversation happened in sets of biweekly bursts of activity. Now it happens in an intense real-time never-ending stream of updates, replies, and mentions.

I’m not saying this is good or bad, because it doesn’t matter. It’s simply happening. But I’m entirely sure that there’s no going back. I agree with Douglas Coupland, who recently said: “In the same way you can never go backward to a slower computer, you can never go backward to a lessened state of connectedness.”

All media is social because human beings are social. The only difference is that it happens much, much, much faster now. We’ve sped up the refresh rate in our mediated conversations so much that the previous version looks like it’s not moving at all.

If we’ve sped up the social experience around media this much in a decade or two, just imagine the amphetamine-fast hyper-social media the next decade will bring.

* The grammarian in me knows that it should be “All Media Are Social” but that just sounds too weird. “Media” has become singular in the same way “data” has.

See Also: Death to User-Generated Content

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.