Why social media doesn’t exist any more

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The rigid concept of social media built by marketers is dead, argues word of mouth specialist at 1000heads Molly Flatt.

No, don’t worry. You haven’t lost your retouched Facebook photos or your underappreciated YouTube masterworks. The collection of platforms and tools we call ’social media’ – social networks, blogs, microblogs, forums, bookmarking and media sharing sites – are still buzzing like hives. But when marketers mention ’social media’, they’re more often than not referencing a concept that most ordinary users wouldn’t even recognise.

I’ve never had a problem with the term itself, especially when defined by Chris Brogan with elegant simplicity as ’the two way web’. But the unspoken meaning behind it has become a relic; a confusing mishmash of cultural assumptions that has been outpaced by the actual way in which we use those online tools.

’Social media’ has become industry shorthand for a digital marketing playground where angry bloggers, hobnobbing mothers and celebrity tweeters tap away in their lonely rooms just waiting for brands with the best viral, flashmob or freebie to capture their voice and their loyalty. This clichéd view of social media as the digital-only preserve of disconnected obsessives was encapsulated this month, quite literally, in the Public Isolation Project http://www.publicisolationproject.com/. For thirty days, performance artist Cristin Norine has been locked in a glass-clad Portland store front, using social media on a laptop all day, every day.

The project purports to “show how technology walls people off even while connecting them”, and there’s no doubt that technology can be isolating, but this sense that social media is a closed digital echo-chamber just does not chime with its evolving role in our lives. With the increasingly mainstream adoption of app-laden smart phones that tear social platforms away from the desktop and into the everyday world; the ambition of technology to get rid of the interface (the sliver-thin iPad, Microsoft’s newly launched Kinect gaming technology); and the development of augmented reality (Wikitude; Nearest Tube), our ’real lives’ and ’online lives’ are merging.

A café is social media. As are the dinner table, the school gates, a bar, a library, the street. From uploading photos of our party to Facebook as it happens to crowdsourcing film recommendations on Twitter when meandering round town with a mate, our offline social spaces are being enhanced by online social spaces in real time. Our conversations around brands are happening alongside our experiences with those brands, on and offline – not captured in a frantic hour when we’re ’logged on’ at the end of the day.

And it isn’t ’digital natives’ or ’influencers’ who are behaving in this way, but ordinary people. The average age of a social network user is 37; 84% of social networking sites have more female than male users; the average income of a Facebook user is between $75,000 (£47,859) and $99,999 (£63,794).

Social media, as we’re used to thinking about it, has broken free. Instead we have a socialised world. It’s a challenging concept for brands that draw their social media budget from a digital pot, and keep their consumer facing departments (marketing, retail, out of home, customer service) neatly categorised. The way we contact and discuss brands now blasts through these distinctions, and marketers need to start realising that ’social media’ is becoming, well, ’life.’

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