MAD Perspectives Blog

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 What's in a Word?

Peggy Dau - Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Social Media.  Social Networks.  Social Technologies. We hear these words bantered about and used interchangeably as they have become an integral part of our cultural lexicon. As I communicate using these words (and many others) every day, I began thinking about how and why I use these words. I also pondered the evolution of words and how new words and definitions are added to dictionaries each year. As you communicate, do you think about how words are going to be interpreted by the reader or listener?

We talked about the importance of context last month. Of course, understanding the context in which a word is used influences the way it is understood. For example, the word pimp evokes the unfortunate image of a person managing and selling the services of a prostitute. However, the expression "pimp my ride" has emerged reflecting a definition for pimp as "showy or impressive". It reflects a cultural interpretation of a car a pimp might drive (at least as interpreted in the movies).

The definition of words have become broader, narrower, weaker or stronger based on similarity of concepts, specialization of meaning or generalization of understanding (or misunderstanding). Words evolve to reflect psychological, societal and cultural influences.  Think about the word propaganda.  The original meaning was to share information, the common understanding today is the proliferation of false data.  With these thoughts in mind, how has the understanding of the terms social media, social network or social technologies shifted?

Social Media has a commonly understood definition as "the web, internet or mobile used technologies enabling interactive dialogue and sharing of user generated content".  In general, media is the channel or tools to store and deliver information or data. Social media is all about interaction whereas other forms of media (broadcast, electronic or print) push content to the user and do not allow real-time feedback.  Social networks are the platforms that combine elements of media and technology to create a destination for interaction.  Prevalent examples of social networks are Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube.  Each of these terms, is still relatively new and our understanding of these terms has expanded over time.  Not only do more people understand what social media is, the scope of what is considered social media has widened.

Finally, we have the term social technologies.  This term has been in existence since the late 1800s.  Charles Richard Henderson, at the University of Chicago, defined social technology as "a system of conscious and purposeful organization of persons in which every actual, natural social organization finds its true place, and all factors in harmony cooperate to realize an increasing aggregate and better proportions of the “health, wealth, beauty, knowledge, sociability, and rightness” desires.".  It's amazing that over 100 years later, the use and intent of social technologies remains the same. 

The volumed of technologies continues to explode as tools to inform, capture, share, influence, measure and analyze come to market.  Given the inclusive, interactive nature of social media it will be interesting to see how the definition and understanding evolves over the next 10-20 years.  How do you think it will change?  Will the way we use social media change the way we define it? What cultural factors will shift our interpretation or our use of social media, networks and technologies?

What's your perspective?