What is Social Media?

A Social Media Definition for Business

What is Social Media? A Social Media Definition for Your Business 2018-05-13T16:36:20+00:00

What is Social Media?

Quick – what’s your social media definition? We all know that Facebook and Twitter are social networks, but what about Yelp or Glassdoor? Are reviews social media? Is your company blog considered “social media”? What about wikis, online forums and communities?

Defining social media can be tricky because everyone has a different view of what it is, and even what it isn’t. How you define social media will affect how you manage social media activities and risks. How social media is defined by regulatory or government agencies can also impact your business.

In our post on social media definitions, we looked at why it’s important for regulated industries to create a robust social media definition. In this post, we define social media and explain why a clear social media definition matters and how it will shape your company’s approach to social media, help you manage risk, comply with regulations and improve business results.

Social media is often defined as interactive, two-way conversations. Those interactions can happen in a variety of ways. People can like and share posts on social networks, comment on blogs and participate in communities, wikis and forums. All these could be social media interactions. However the context of these interactions may mean that those actions may not be social media. This means that context matters.

To answer the question “What is social media”, we look at several elements that help to answer the question. We also provide you with a 3-step “Is this social media” test that you can use to test your own definition. Finally we offer a robust answer for “what is social media?”  – feel free to use it in your workplace policy or elsewhere if needed.

Why Businesses Need a Clear Social Media Definition

Businesses must answering the question of “What is social media?” internally. The answer to the question will determine which processes and tasks companies must undertake once an activity is considered to be social media or not.

This definition acts as the starting point for other actions that may be taken given the decision to consider a particular type of activity or online application as social media.

If a platform or capability is designated as “social media”, this may trigger specific types of business or risk assessments. It may also require employees or vendors to comply with certain guidelines, policies or other regulations that may impact the use of social media.

A clear social media definition allows companies to be proactive in their approach to risk management and strategic planning of social media activities.

A poor social media definition can increase business risks.

Companies often grapple with the question of “What is Social Media?” when deciding how to oversee social media activities. A robust definition for social media is important because it can determine whether a particular type of activity must comply with company standards or policies.

Many companies engaged in interactive, online activities define social media in their workplace social media policy. If that definition is vague or inaccurate, it can lead to potential problems and increased risks.

Problems can include:

  • Employees not realizing their activities are in fact, “social media” and are subject to their workplace policies
  • Risk officers may not include social media as part of their due diligence process
  • Technology departments may not recognize social media as a potential threat to data security

If social media is mis-classified, the results can be costly. People and departments that should be included are left out of important decision-making. Processes may have gaps. Social media activities are conducted inconsistently.  As a result, time, money and resources are wasted, opportunities are missed and risks can increase substantially.

A clear understanding of the nature of social media can greatly help to reduce the potential conflict within an organization, and the potential risks along the way. Yet many companies fail to articulate a solid definition for social media.

Why is defining social media so challenging?

Defining social media is difficult because there are so many different types of social media technologies and capabilities. To make it easier to define social media and answer the question “What is social media?“, we’ve come up with a 3-step test you can use to decide if something “is social media” (or not).

If you’re in doubt about whether something “is social media”, apply our 3-Step “Is it Social Media” Test to help you decide.

3-step “Is it Social Media” Test

Step 1. Is this a technology with social capabilities or features?

Step 1

In Step 1, we ask:

Is this a website or mobile app? 

e.g. an online page, site, platform, wiki, forum, community or other destination where people can publish content 


Does it have one or more social/interactive (see Step 2) capabilities and features?

e.g. commenting, reviewing, posting, sharing, liking, reposting, reviewing, rating, recommending, etc.

If the answer is yes, go on to Step 2.

Step 2. Is it Interactive?

Step 2

Social media is interactive. If an online communication is or could be a back-and-forth, two-way conversation, then it’s interactive.

An example of interactivity is a blog comment, which is a reaction to a blog post. The comment capability makes the entire piece of content potentially interactive, because the audience of the piece can react to and respond to the published content, in the same forum.

This is what determines whether a message, website, application or other functionality is interactive. An web ad banner is not interactive, and therefore not social media because there’s no opportunity to respond to the banner in the same forum.

If the answer is yes, go on to Step 3.

Step 3. Is it Public?

Step 3

Social media is usually public,. That means the interactions, engagement and conversations are generally done in a public forum. Other people can see the conversations and react or engage, because of the public nature of these communications, . This is a big reason that social media is so successful.

People get satisfaction from publicly interacting with others by sharing, commenting and reacting to information. People feel empowered with the ability to rate, review and endorse or complain about companies in a public forum.

Most people choose to engage publicly on social media even with settings to control the level of privacy of their content.

If the answer is “yes” to all three steps above, you can be fairly certain that the technology you’re assessing is social media. 

Social Media Definition - What is Social Media?

Should Messaging or Chat be included in a Social Media Definition?

Direct messaging within a social network and chat applications are usually considered social media, but not always. This is because those messaging systems rely on the social network infrastructure to provide that messaging capability. Some regulatory agencies such as FFIEC mandate that messaging on social media platforms must be considered as social media. Examples of social media messaging are Facebook Messenger or Twitter Direct Messaging.

This can get complicated however. Snapchat is a messaging app that is usually considered “social media” by most people, because it’s…social. However, Snapchat has never really considered itself to be a social media company, just a messaging company. Now, it bills itself as a “camera app” – still not social media.

Email is not considered social media, because it’s private communication and not on a publicly available platform.

And finally, here’s our definition for social media. Feel free to use this in your own social media policy or elsewhere as needed.

A Social Media Definition You Can Use

Social media are online platforms or web applications with interactive capabilities or features that allow people and companies to engage with and communicate with each other.

Engagement can take the form of liking, sharing, commenting, posting or collaborating in a community, tagging, blogging, live-streaming, posting testimonials or recommendations, or giving ratings and reviews.

Messaging within a social media platform is also considered as social media.