Well it can be a lot of different things. Which is one reason it is so exciting and presumably so valuable.
From the point of view of a business or an individual who has their own personal website or blog, one thing that Social Media is, is advertising.
In the 90's I owned and ran a retail furnishings store. We advertised mostly in the local newspaper and to some extent on local television and radio.
In the webspace, to a private website owner, the simplest way I can describe Social Media is that it is like new media's version of the local paper. And your blog or website is like your 'store' if you will.
Simply put, social media is exposure, a way to extend your web presence to a larger audience with the scaling help of automation (electrons) and the virtues of the communications' revolution itself (photons).
Translation: A little bit of intent and pushing a few buttons equals a ton of leverage and distribution.
You pay for this exposure, not with money, but with content. You and the rest of the network of members are providing the social media site its content, and in return it is providing you with exposure and extending your reach, along with a platform for making new connections.
On Google's algorithmic, non-human network your website or business is passive, and the prospective customer, if you will, is active. Actively searching for something that you or some other site or business may have.
On the human, social network, you the business, website, or promoter, if you will, is the one being active. And the prospective consumer is in a passive mode, using the network as a river to dip in and out of, as entertainment, news, communication, emotional outlet, or just plain fun.
I think there is not only room, but a need for both types of networks, and that the rise of Facebook and Twitter doesn't mean at all the demise of Google. There are times when we want our network to be flowing, serendipitous, and fun, and there are other times when we are in a more deliberative, utilitarian mode. We need (or want) answers, and we need them now.
Except with Social Media you are not selling your wares directly. You are indirectly selling your self as a real person, a genuine person with real interests. It's a way to scale your 'legitimacy.' Trust is one of the biggest factors in making a sale. And social media is a way to scale the communication of your trust.
From a business standpoint or even just a human friendship standpoint, one's activity in Social Media is comparable to the "Opening of the Sale" where the goal is to talk about anything except business. In sales this is what is known as the "Schmoozing" process. But before you start thinking how creepy it is to think in these terms, "Schmoozing" only really works if you are truly interested from a sincere standpoint in the subject you are "schmoozing" about. Any insincerity in this process, either in real life or in the venue of Social Media, and one would have been better not signing up for Twitter or any other such service.
So one way to look at Social Media, is as an advertising medium, a free way to extend your reach and your message. But in social media the message is your personality, your real point of view, and what you are selling is your integrity, your trust.
Let's take one example that I remember coming up recently. Lisa Bettany
) is a professional photographer. She posts much of her work on Flickr
, the most popular Photography Social Media site. She doesn't post her work there with each caption screaming "Buy This Now Because I'm Great and I Need Money!" along with a Paypal link. She posts there because she loves photography and loves sharing her work and the tips behind her work with others. Such actions build trust and integrity. She feeds the site with its content. The popularity of the site feeds her with exposure.
She recently told the story
of how this photo
, which she posted on flickr over a year ago for no money, was recently purchased unexpectedly by Penguin, the book publisher, for use as the artwork for a book cover. Penguin only found the photo because it was on Flickr. They knew flickr to be the most popular photography sharing site. So they went there to search for the right potential content for their project. If the photo was only posted on her private website, it would not have been found.
No transaction would have been made. So, the Social Network, in the virtual world, is like the Commons or Marketplace of a University or City in the 'real' World. It extended her personal work's reach into the public sphere for consumption, enjoyment, and productivity.
That's one example of the Social Network's virtuous cycle. The users provide the content for free. And the network provides the user with free exposure.
This is just one thing that a Social Network is from the decided point of view of the business/website/blog owner, or anyone using the internet itself to scale a message.
Ads that you pay real money for are the ones for direct selling, talking about your product, its Features, Advantages, and Benefits.
Social Media is like hob nobbing at the Country Club or local Charity Fundraiser but without having to get into your monkey suit and drive down to the venue. Still, you need to be truthfully interested in that person you are chatting with, and really care about that charity you are raising 'funds' for, and not be in it just for you or the 'sale.'
I think most would agree that's a more fun way to live anyway.