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What is social media?

Resources: socialmedia tag on delicious, socialmedia tag on Technorati. To a first approximation, social media is currently defined by what is listed on those tags at any moment. If you want to find the biggest concentration of people, join the Social Media Club.

If you go back far enough in time, social media has its origins in the intersection between publishing and correspondence. Ben Franklin did social media. The American newspapers of the 1880s, full of letters from readers and correspondent reports from far away places, were social media. The distinction between author, publisher, editor, correspondent, and reader is not always clear cut – no industrialized corporate content management system with seven layers of complexity sits between the words and the page.

In the early days of the Internet, social media was the boundary between mainstream news and self-publishing. Influential mailing lists like Dave Farber’s “interesting people” regularly clipped news stories from wires and engaged the expert readership with commentary and newsworthy review. The reporters themselves were part of the dialog. There’s still an editor in this world, but the distance between reader and publisher is much smaller.

The recent flurry of activity around social media has a lot to do with its discovery (and subsequent attempted annexation) by public relations professionals. There’s a real culture clash between Internet natives and PR people, with no love lost on both sides. In much the same way that the tectonic clash between netheads and Bellheads defined the development of the Internet, the lines between PR, marketing, advertising, and blogging are being redrawn with occasional earthquakes to stir things up.

Social media differs from PR most thoroughly in that the measurements of success are different. PR pros measure their success in soft squishy numbers like advertising equivalent value of the column inches of press coverage. Social media lends itself to precisely measured and cleanly instrumented impact assessments based on keyword analysis, conversion rates, click through rates, and wonderful numbers like cost per lead or cost per conversion. The new phrase is cost per conversation.

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