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“Social Media” is SO 2009! 7 Proposed Semantic Upgrades

At the risk of inspiring unresolvable semantic discussions, this post addresses seven Digital Era terms that should probably be replaced and/or removed from the lexicon and suggests both existing and new alternative terminology to use in their place. What other proposed changes would you make?


I generally try to avoid semantic arguments. Having clarity about the meaning of various terms, especially those related to emerging technologies and trends, is no doubt important. But when the terms and their meanings are evolving, discussions about them can devolve into an infinite loop of opinions and perceptions that produce neither clarity nor consensus.

That said, there are some uses and misuses that have been bothering me for a while now. And since we’ve reached a reasonable level of maturity and stability in a number of areas, I think it’s time to give serious consideration to making semantic changes that enable us to use more accurate, logical and fact-based language to refer to elements of the world we live in – and to stop using passé terms unnecessarily.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on my proposals, as well as any additional recommendations you may have. Thanks!

– Courtney Shelton Hunt

Going from the general to the specific…

Social Media. Wikipedia lays out a decent denotation of the term, but the connotation still varies widely. And in my experience, most people equate the term with the public platforms, assuming the social media universe is solely comprised of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and their ilk. That assumption not only misses the point that it’s the technologies underlying those platforms that constitute social media, it also (more importantly) leads them to draw erroneous conclusions about the potential that social media holds for both them and the organizations of which they’re a part. Plus, for laggards and resisters, the term evokes a negative visceral reaction that’s hard to overcome.

I’m not proposing we do away with the term altogether, I’m proposing that we be more precise about when and how we use it. When referring to public platforms, it’s the appropriate term. But when we’re talking about the technology more broadly, it’s better to use an alternative…

Alternative 1: I prefer the terms social technology or social technologies, which are still accurate descriptors but less loaded.

Alternative 2: A more encompassing alternative is social and digital technologies, which encompasses not just software, but also
hardware (i.e., mobile devices) and services (i.e., cloud-based computing).

Alternative 3: My personal favorite new term is SMAC, which stands for social (software), mobile (devices and access), (data) analytics, and cloud (computing) and reflects the convergence among these technology movements. Individually, each movement is incredibly powerful. Together, they have the potential to create dramatic transformations. Over time, they will be virtually indistinguishable.

Anything 2.0. A few years ago it was important to append 2.0 to various terms (e.g., Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, Government 2.0) to reflect the fact that social media was causing a shift from static internet-based sites with one-directional communication to collaborative sites characterized by multi-directional communication. As social technologies have become more integrated into digital platforms of all types, as well as the organizations that leverage those platforms, it’s probably no longer necessary to add the 2.0 qualifier.

Social Business, Social Enterprise, Social Learning. All three terms accurately convey their intent; unfortunately they all also have distinct meanings that have no specific connections to social technologies. Both Social Business and Social Enterprise, for example, along with Social Entrepreneurship, are used to refer to for-profit businesses that have charitable or socially-oriented missions. And Social Learning is most strongly connected to social learning theory, which was developed in the late 1970s.

We could argue that we need to find better language to reflect the phenomena these terms refer to, but I might suggest that we should simply stop trying to use them. Over time, as social and digital technologies become more integrated into all aspects of organizational life, the “social” qualifier will become redundant and unnecessary. This applies not only to the terms above but others like social intranet and social recognition.

The New Normal. Although it will continue to evolve, the Digital Era is fully established. Even resisters and laggards are impacted by enhanced forms of communication and collaboration every day, often without even being aware of it. So referring to the realities created by social and digital technologies as a “brave new world” or “the new normal” implies a novelty that no longer exists. It is, simply put, just normal.

In Real Life (IRL). This term originated to distinguish earth-based interactions from cyber interactions. And even though resisters continue to use the term to disparage digital communication as being inferior to face-to-face communication, most folks have come to realize that it’s all real life! More importantly, rather than creating a false dichotomy between the different ways in which we know and interact with one another, we are better served by figuring out how to integrate them in the most efficient and effective ways to achieve our goals and objectives. This term should go, but we probably still need something to distinguish the virtual and physical worlds. I’ve been experimenting with using earthspace. Yeah, I know – it’s kind of awkward. I’d love to hear alternatives…

Microblogging. This term is still technically accurate, but it now seems antiquated and kind of clunky, perhaps because the activity has morphed into wall posts, shares, and status updates on a variety of platforms both public (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn, G+) and private (e.g., Yammer, SharePoint and a host of social intranet products). And because Twitter and Tumblr have emerged as the dominant microblogging platforms, people tend to refer to those sites and their related activities by their brand names rather than using generic terms. Basically, no one ever says, “I’m going to microblog about that” or “I’m going to post that to my microblog.” Now that I think about it, did they ever?

Note: One could argue we should also get rid of the term “blog,” which no longer literally reflects what they are or do, but we seem to have good consensus on the connotation so it’s likely to stick around.

Smartphone. People who own these devices obviously use them for much more than talking on the phone. More importantly, their other uses are likely to be much more significant. Given that, it’s more accurate to refer to them as mobile communication devices or a mobile computing devices – or MCDs for short. Yes, people may look at you funny and make fun of you at first, but eventually they’ll agree the term is more logical and even a bit more elegant. It’s kind of got a Star Trek vibe… ūüôā

Adopting the term MCD can also bring an end to the silly-sounding term phablet, which according to the Wikipedia definition is a “portmanteau of the words phone and tablet.” If distinguishing based on size is important (which I’m not sure it is), perhaps we can adopt mini-MCD, midi-MCD, and maxi-MCD (which would include both full-sized tablets and hybrid devices like Microsoft’s Surface.

What other changes would you suggest?

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Dick Davies

Cool! I learned some new jargon! Reading your post, I realized people use language for what THEY want, which is for more than just meaning. Terms pick up color and then re-color based on a life cycle and how frequently they are used in a milieu. I really like what you built.

Courtney Shelton Hunt

Thanks for your comment, Dick, especially your point that “ people use language for what THEY want, which is for more than just meaning.” That has definitely been true for the term “social media.” I never cease to be amazed at the definitions people assert as factual even though they’re basically a perception based on their own individual experience. It’s very common to project personal reality as universal truth…