By Carfi, Christopher
Communication World , Vol. 26, No. 6
Social media represent a sea change that will affect every aspect of an organization, and nowhere is this more evident than in an organization's relationship with its customers. Customers, once solely at the receiving end of corporate communication, are now not only entering conversations with organizations but, more important, are increasingly entering into online conversations with each other about products and brands.
What defines social media?
Both professionally and personally, human beings naturally form groups based on affinities and expertise. We gravitate to people with whom we share interests. Most of us belong to real-world networks that formed organically, from book clubs to sports clubs. Not surprisingly, these networks rapidly migrated to the online world.
Online social networking has been around in various forms for nearly a decade, though it has achieved wide notice in the past few years. Online social networks take many forms and are created for many reasons. Despite their differences, online social networks commonly exhibit a number of the following concepts:
* Profiles: Each member in a network has an online profile that serves as his or her identity in the network. In the professional context, profiles often contain information regarding the individual's experience, education, interests and affiliations, as well as information about skills and resources.
* Connections: Online social networks typically enable people to connect with others in the network. In some cases, these connections are implicit, and derived from past actions (such as sending an e-mail to another member of the network). Other times, the connections are explicit, and are set up and created by the members themselves.
* Content: Content is the information created in, posted on and shared via a social network. It comes in the form of text, photos, video and the like. Historically, content was the purpose of the World Wide Web. Things have changed markedly, however, and it is now understood that content is only one facet of the social web.
* Activities: When individuals participate in or even peruse social sites online, there are myriad activities taking place, such as logging in, joining a group, posting a photo, commenting on a post, "friending" a colleague or rating a document. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter have broken new ground in making those activities "visible" to other members of the community.
These four components--profiles, connections, content and activities--form the pillars of what makes a site "social."
Within these social spaces, there is a form of "social currency" that flows between members. In his 2001 article "Second Sight" in The Guardian, Douglas Rushkoff defines social currency this way:
"Social currency is like a good joke. When a bunch of friends sit around and tell jokes, what are they really doing? Entertaining one another? Sure, for a start. But they are also using content--mostly unoriginal content that they've heard elsewhere--in order to lubricate a social occasion. And what are most of us doing when we listen to a joke? Trying to memorize it so that we can bring it somewhere else. The joke itself is social currency. 'Invite Harry. He tells good jokes. He's the life of the party.'
"That's why the most successful TV shows, web sites and music recordings are generally the ones that offer the most valuable forms of social currency to their fans. Sometimes, like with mainstream media, the value is its universality."
Social currency is currency, like the dollar, that we exchange with those around us as part of our everyday interactions. In other words, it is the stuff we talk about with our friends, colleagues and family.
The best ads, for example, revolve around this idea of social currency. The most memorable ads provoke the "Did you see that?!? …