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?

It can be difficult to define social media. How you manage social media activities and risks can depend on how your company defines social media. Your company may also be affected by the way social media is defined by regulatory agencies.

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

Social Media Is Interactive

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

Once social media has been defined within a company, it will be easier for employees to know which processes to follow.

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 a two-way conversation, then it’s interactive.

An example of interactive communication is a blog comment, which is a reaction to a blog post. If commenting is allowed on a blog, the readers of a blog post can react to and respond to the published content. As a result, the blog post is now “interactive” – a two-way conversation between the author and the reader.

An online display ad is not interactive because there’s no opportunity for the ad viewer to comment or engage with the ad, except to click on it to view more information.

Interactivity is what determines whether a message, website, application or other functionality is social media.  

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

Step 3. Is it Public?

Step 3

Social media is usually public. Interactions, engagement and conversations in social media are generally conducted publicly. Other people can see the conversations and react or engage, because of the public nature of these communications. 

People get satisfaction from publicly interacting with others, whether they are sharing, commenting and reacting to information, rating, reviewing, endorsing or complaining about companies. For most people, the ability to interact with others online is empowering.

Most people engage in social media publicly even though they can use privacy settings to control how much other people see.

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 each of those messaging capabilities rely on the social network’s infrastructure to function.

The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC), a formal U.S. government interagency and regulatory body, mandates that messaging on social media platforms must be considered as social media. Facebook Messenger or Twitter Direct Messaging are examples of social media messaging.

Online messaging is not always considered to be social media. Snapchat is a messaging app that is usually included in lists of social media platforms. 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.

Finally, email is not considered social media because it’s private communication.

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.