What Is Social Media? Not What You Think!

A few weeks ago I attended the Digital Pharma West Conference in San Francisco where I was on a panel discussing the role of emerging technologies in the life sciences. Although I’m a big believer in repurposing technologies – especially social software – for business uses, I always express caution about simply jumping into them and punting without establishing an understanding of their basic properties.

Social Media is not what most evangelists think or say it is. Technology reveals things: things about how the world works, things about how we work; things about how we provide healthcare; even things about how technologies work and inter-relate and evolve.

And from a business perspective, social media is revealing things about how enterprises work – or, more commonly, how they don’t work.

Allow me to explain.


Most definitions of so-called social media focus on the marketing, communications, public relations enframming of them.

But I would argue that there a non-social aspects and ramifications of these media which can have social value. So, here’s an attempt to place social media in a broader perspective and why it’s important to do so.

I realize what I have to say here may seem esoteric and overly philosophical. However, too often I see organizations get ahead of themselves without fully understanding how things fit together in order to be oriented. A business – whatever business – without orientation is headed to bankruptcy.


Social Media is the meeting place between people and technology. It enables new kinds of connectivity and relationships between people, from intimate to ambient. But it’s more than just social: social media connects machines, objects and data in ways we’ve never seen before.

Social Media in fact is has three essential attributes:

  1. Social
  2. Technological
  3. Ideological

Social On one hand Social Media is neither social nor media. People are social; but what is referred to as social media are in fact software. Traditional media were hardware – print, radio, TV were non-programmable, stable and predictable media. Software are pliant, unstable and unpredictable. Unlike traditional media, small tweaks in software can produce major repercussions in their function and social dynamics. And it’s this pliancy of the software which enables novel ways for people to connect and share and network. In other words: there certainly are social aspects to these technologies.

Technological Social Media – which depend on software – certainly do enable social connections. But it is also a technological connector. Underlying social media are software which offer pliant repurposing and evolving and revealing of new connections and networks – and the new worlds born out of them.

Ideological Furthermore, social media is Ideological. It’s important to understand the historical relationship between technology and ideology. New technological conditions generate shifts in power through which new ideologies emerge. The current debates about Privacy and Intellectual Property are just two examples of the kinds of new ideologies that are emerging. When Marketers ask How can we integrate social media into our strategy?, they are seeking an Ideology.


Movable type brought forth new ways of knowledge acquisition and distribution, undermining established religions, governments, laws and political structures: all of which bore the strain of challenging ideologies made possible by the technologies of reading and writing.

Even the human brain was rewired: the acoustic parts of the brain slowly gave way to the visual; the mythological way of thinking was replaced by a literal one. The linear, rigid, procedural mentality brought forth a new kind of civilization ultimately leading away from Feudalism to Capitalism and mass production, which in turn gave rise to Marxist and other ideologies.

While the ramifying consequences of moveable type transpired over centuries – half of a Millenia – the pace of today’s emerging media is creating shifts in years, months and weeks.

The technological conditions of the 20th Century limited messaging to unilateral mass communications and represented the culmination of the technological advances originating from the Literal Mind which moveable type gave rise to. The technological conditions of the 21st Century create multilateral and customizable communications at both the mass and micro level.

Therefore: Social media is social, technological and ideological. This combination forms the powder keg of early 21st Century cultural, technological, ideological, economic, commercial and political disruption.


Twitter, for instance, enables connections among two or more people for conversation, sharing and connecting. That’s the social feature of Twitter.

But Twitter as platform (and by Twitter I’m referring to the generic premise, not necessarily Twitter, Inc.‘s service) includes a broader and more fundamental utility opening a new design space in which further technological evolution can take place.

From insulin pumps following the tweets of continuous glucose readings, to weapons following the tweets of command units, Twitter will change the way we, computers and machines get things done. Furthermore it will change why we do what we do because it affords new systems to grow on top of the platform, offering new views of what’s possible with the technologies.

Twitter’s simplicity is its complexity. So in Life Sciences, not only is marketing being affected but also design and research and clinical collaboration and production of solutions to problems which can now be discovered and tracked far more powerfully than ever before.

A purpose of marketing is to connect two points: Connect a point of suffering with a point of care. Today’s technologies offer newly evolving challenges and opportunities of accomplishing that task.


And this brings us to the discussion about adoption and integration of social media. In my view, too much of the focus in current discussions is lopsided from a strategic perspective.

I believe that the Marketer’s perspective is too myopic to handle the full ramifications of these technologies – and yet, it’s the one that is the loudest (and most confused I might add). 🙂

Rather, it’s the Investor’s perspective that is critical and far more capable of successfully understanding and implementing the changes demanded of our times.

Let me explain.

Every dollar you see on the financial statements of an enterprise is ultimately the result of social transactions: revenues are the result of social transactions with customers; expenses are the result of social transactions with vendors; capitalization is the result of social relations with investors.

Revenues are only part of an entire enterprise’s well-being. Expenses are part of the investing and operating necessities of any going-concern. Labor, for instance, represents the potential of employees to produce, create and operate.

Internal uses of the right kinds of social media, therefore, can be just a financially valuable as externally-facing uses. And therein lies the importance of bringing social media deep into an organization.

In fact, I would argue that those businesses which adopt social media internally first may be in a better position as they build their online presences and voice. Actually – it’s those businesses which question their assumptions, re-examine how they get things done and re-design processes which will extract the most value from emerging media.

All too often, the Marketer’s perspective is the largest focus when it comes to social media integration. But it’s the Investor’s perspective that provides the largest view of what’s possible.


Social Media is simple from the outside but complex on the inside. In a word, Social Media is a mess.

…Unless, of course, you understand that before Strategy comes Vision. Some people see that and some don’t.

The right question isn’t How do we integrate these technologies into our strategy?

A smarter question is: Do these technologies call into question our strategy?

Ah – now there’s a question.

Ask and you shall receive.



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0 Replies to “What Is Social Media? Not What You Think!”

  1. You state:

    “Social Media is the meeting place between people and technology.”


    technology is the tool that allows people to utilize their common experiences for mutual benefit.

    technology is not the the key. people are the key. any technology can be misused. But people are figuring out how to use it for their benefit and if those people don’t use it, the tech is worthless. Ideology will continue to use whatever is the best medium for it’s communication. social media simply allows for faster dissemination of what used to be in print or word of mouth.

    No matter how, people are what make any type of connection happen between themselves and others

    1. Hi Scott –

      Yes, people are key.

      Not to mention, these media are evolving and their use is increasing over time, so it will be interesting to see what the next several years will look like.


  2. Great food for thought!

    What is interesting is how quickly the technology was re-purposed for business uses, since, as I recall, it was originally developed as a way to connect people (scientists and researchers) with information they would not otherwise have access to.

    For now the conversation about social media is dominated by marketers because they specialize in getting their messages heard. But it’s important to keep talking at large (not just in specialty conferences) about other ways the technology can be used to connect so we don’t stop innovating.

    Thanks for the post.

    1. Bless you, Lisa!

      Exactly – there’s so much more we can explore.

      And yes, the Internet was designed with scientific research (and military purposes) in mind. It wasn’t designed for Marketing.

      What I see emerging in innovation, is the integration and convergence of media with other technologies. I think what we’re seeing now is only a piece-meal view.


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