Defining the Social Media Landscape, Literally

What would any good definition be without a dictionary? Here are the “real” definitions of our social media landscape, archaic or fleeting though they may be…

Social– adj. “relating to society; organization of the way people live and work together in groups; seeking or enjoying the companionship of others; pertaining to the life, welfare, and relations of human beings in a community; relating to the public as an aggregate body; consisting in union or mutual intercourse”

Media– noun “the means of communication that reach or influence people widely; something intermediate; surrounding conditions or influences; an intervening agency or means by which something is conveyed or accomplished; channels of general communication, information, or entertainment in society, such as newspapers, radio, or television”

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Social Media– According to our old friend Wikipedia, and who better? Besides, perhaps Wordia the “next-gen social dictionary”… I digress, Wiki says social media is “primarily Internet- and mobile-based tools for sharing and discussing information among human beings; most often refers to activities that integrate technology, telecommunications and social interaction, and the construction of words, pictures, videos and audio; AKA: user-generated content (UGC).”

Differences between social media and industrial media can include: Accessibility: social media tools are generally available to anyone at little or no cost; Usability: industrial media production typically requires specialized skills and training, most social media does not; and Immediacy: the time lag between communications produced by industrial media is long compared to social media (capable of virtually instantaneous responses). Does this mean industrial media is anti-social? Doubtful, but an interesting thought…

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The Jacksonsville Biz Journal says, “Having a company Web site is so five years ago. Social media — the umbrella term for blogs, social networks, photo, video & other user-generated mediums — is the new era.” And in “Debunking Six Social Media Myths,” BusinessWeek tells us what social media marketing is not (necessarily): free, for anyone, quick/immediate, in-house, guaranteed traffic, or unmeasurable.

Social Network (SN) – In SNs: Definition, History, and Scholarship, Boyd and Ellison define social network sites as “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system (“type oneself into being”), (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection (which may be bi-directional friendship or one-directional tie, such as fans, followers or stalkers), and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. (The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site.)”

For example, Facebook defines itself as a social utility that “gives people the power to share and makes the world more open and connected. Millions of people use Facebook everyday to keep up with friends, upload an unlimited number of photos, share links and videos, and learn more about the people they meet.”

Virtual– adj. “opposed to real; being in essence or effect, not in actual fact; existing in the mind; product of the imagination; artificial objects temporarily created or simulated by a computer network as a convenient way to manage access to shared resources; performing the functions of something that isn’t really there.”

Virtually– adv. “nearly; almost, but not quite; for the most part; all but; just about; in fact or to all purposes; practically; to all intents and purposes; slightly short of; not quite accomplished”

Virtual World (VW)Virtual worlds are “computer-based simulated environments intended for users to inhabit and interact via avatars. Avatars are usually depicted as textual, 2D, or 3D graphical representations.” VW News says 2009 seems almost inevitably a time of consolidation and downturn for the VW space. That makes sense, considering CNET reported that funding for VWs decreased from $184 million in Q1 2008 to $101 million in Q4. (In total, $594 million was invested in 63 virtual worlds during 2008.)

According to the dictionary definition (virtual + world), VWs are artificial, simulated worlds; existing of mind. But are VWs still an escape (from reality), are they still a getaway? VWs should ideally allow exploration, gameplay, and the experience of being someone else, or having an alter/second life, but what about the increasing number of worlds that mirror our actual world and use players’ real identities? Twinity, for example, is a “3D online world that links the real with the virtual world based on realistic replicas of the world’s most vibrant metropolises in 3D.”

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Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) – An MMOG is “a massively multiplayer online game is a video game which is capable of supporting hundreds or thousands of players from around the globe simultaneously. By necessity, they are played via the Internet and feature at least one ‘persistent’ world. MMOGs enable players to cooperate and compete with each other on a large scale, and all players in MMOGs can interact with each other at any given time. MMOGs include a variety of gameplay types, representing many video game genres. They create a persistent universe where the game continues playing regardless of whether or not anyone else is. Few MMOGs have any significant single-player aspects, as the server AI is primarily designed to support group play. As a result, players cannot ‘finish’ MMOGs in the typical sense of single-player games.”

Similarly, Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) “blend online and real-life/world gaming elements. They can be massively multiplayer, allowing thousands of players worldwide to co-operate in puzzle trails and mystery solving (though ARGs aren’t necessarily multiplayer). ARGs use a unique mixture of online/real-world play that usually does not involve a persistent world.”

ICO Partners recently made some predictions on MMOG trends for 2009, almost all of which fit perfectly into the Social Web structure, such as: browser-based games, free to play (here to stay), retail distribution is going away, rise of cloud computing, externally/user-generated content, rise of self-publishing and new entrants in the sector (think iPhone and indie developers), and last but certainly not least, social gaming.

As compelling as the “virtual shift” continues to be, I’ve no doubt that its results will be even more so. In the next section I will discuss what it is we’re virtually shifting to – a Social Web.

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