I think this is a really interesting question. Essentially social networks are web based platforms that allow us to share as much or little of our lives as we want to. To be fair, I probably think about this question more than most as I work on the social media team of a digital marketing agency. The conclusion I have come to is yes and no. I think this is because essentially it depends upon who engages with social media and more than that what social network they utilise.
It is very different for brands and people. For brands social media is a medium like any other, like TV or radio or billboards. It’s a way for them to communicate with their target audience. The fundamental difference of course is that social media allows instant feedback and brands (employees acting on a brands behalf) can have conversations with target audiences in real time which has never been possible before. So from a brands point of view, absolutely I think social networks are social because it gives that brand a voice that allows it to interact with real people (existing and potential customer). I genuinely don’t think there is any better way for a brand to interact with its community than through the medium of social media.
When it comes to people like you and me then, I think we need to put more definition around the various social networks out there because we all use different social networks for different reasons. The ones I use most are Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Foursquare, there are lots more but I think it’s fair to say that these are the most commonly used in Ireland. While all of these are referred to as social networks I think they all serve very different purposes and therefore should be referred to differently.
I think Facebook would be better described as a friend network coming dangerously close to being hijacked by business. Twitter is, for the most part an information network used by people to share and extract blogs, articles, images and more that they find interesting. I know Twitter has made serious moves to monetise itself in the last year but it’s still used primarily as a source of information I think (feel free to disagree). LinkedIn is often referred to as a business network or a network for businesses but I think it’s much more valuable a resource to people looking for a job, as a social CV with added features like job descriptions, recommendations and plug-ins like WordPress and similar. Lastly then Foursquare is a location based network.
So, to answer the question – are social networks actually social? in my opinion, for everyday users, no. Social networks are used largely in isolation, a person at home watching TV or taking a break at work or similar. Users post comments, upload pictures and tweet content they find worthwhile. But we’re not actually socialising with other people in the real the world and in the case of Twitter we interact with people we will probably never meet. That’s why things like tweet-ups and twestivals exist. Of course there is an argument to say that you are still socialising just in a different way but personally I think there is no substitute for actually getting out of the house and meeting up with friends. That’s why I think Foursquare and other location based networks are the most social (in a way). Users arrive at place, a coffee shop for example, check in and then sit down to a cup of coffee with friends.
Don’t get me wrong I think social networks are great and I use them every day but I think this is a valid question to ask. A better description of social media would be interactive media. What do you think? How do you use social networks, which ones do you use most often? I’d love to know what you think. So leave a comment.