Social networks are not medias. And reciprocally

In short: we too often consider that social networks and media are the same thing while they have different natures. The difference lies in relationship reciprocity and involves noticeable differences in the way each one should be used.

That’s a thought that often comes to me when I read some articles or discussions on twitter : most of services we call “social networks” aren’t social networks. At least in my my opinion. What means a couple of things :

– we’re still not clear about what a social network is and the large majority does not still get all the subtleties of the concept.

– because the word is trendy, we use the words “social” and “social network” for anything without knowing what it’s about. That’s obviously true for observers that are not very involved in social media (non specialized press and media). That’s not a problem in fact but it mainly shows that the understanding  of social media beyond early adopters may be overestimated.

– by lack of understanding of what a tool or service is, people expect anything and often too much from it. That’s a more tricky point, most of all when businesses believes it and invest a lot, expecting a moonshot and ending in the gutter.

I’m sure there’s any undisputable truth in this field but here is mine. It’s only worth what it is but if it can help to refine the subject (even for me) that’s better than nothing.A couple of weeks ago I saw something on tweeter. It was like “do you think Pinterest is a network or a tool ?”. I’d rather ask the question differently and say “network or media”, knowing that in any case they’re tools which value derives from the way they’re used. Hence the need for better tool qualification in order to make the most of it.

First I don’t see the difference between a network and a social network. Until some shows me what an asocial network can be, I start with the assumption that all networks are social. But on the other hand, not all media are social. Anyway, in this post I’ll only deal with social media.

Then comes the point : what’s the difference between a network and a media. At first sight we can think that networks are media and that looks true. But not all medias are networks.

Social network vs media : different kinds of relationship

The main difference ? Reciprocity in relationship.

The concept of network implies that two people in a direct relationship validate their relationship, makes it formal. Facebook and Linkedin are networks because they need a voluntary action on both part. One requests, the other accepts. Or not. Of course there’s a slight difference between theory and practice and some users request to be in contact with people they’ve never done anything with. So bad for those who accept, they’ll often be the ones who pick up the pieces. But that confirms my works : the less one pays attention to the requests he accepts the less the relationship is actionable, the less the network works.

On the contrary, a media does not need reciprocity. Moreover the words “friends” or “contacts” are irrelevant here. Twitter’s “followers” is more relevant. I follow you if I’m interested in what you say but I do not expect reciprocity. Reciprocity may happen and in this case it can mean two things : a community of interest (what does not mean the two people have any kind of friendly of business relationship) or pure politeness (what leads to unreadable timelines with a terrible signal/noise ratio not because what people say is not interesting but because it’s often not in your scope of using the tool).

That can be illustrated as follows. If I have a friend who has a passion for frog breeding, I’ll add him on Facebook, I may add him on linkedin if he also works in my industry and we’ve made things together in the past and there are few chances I’ll follow him on twitter because all his tweets are about frogs. But if he works in the social software industry he may follow me even if I don’t follow him.

Moreover remember that Twitter’s founders often said that it was not a social network.

That’s it.

That said, all what I wrote above is nice but of little value if it does not impact the way these tools are used. And it actually does.

Don’t expect the same from a network and a media

– the sender/receiver relationship is not the same, most of all when it comes to trust. It meanes that we should not ask and expect the same from contacts and followers. The more the message or the request is involving, the better a network will work vs. a media.

– people care more about their network than their audience. The number of contacts on a network seldom declines while the number of followers can go up and down.

– “one-shot” interactions are more likely to happen on a media than on a network. We don’t accept contacts “for the duration of a need” while we can follow someone for the duration of an event and unfollow after. We change radio or tv channels more often than we change  friends.

– consequence of the previous point : on a network we link to people, on a media we follow topics. Even if, on social media, the person counts, that’s because of his view on a given topic. In most cases topics rule. Example : if a contact leaves his social media consultant job to start a frog breeding business and start tweeting about his ne business, I may lose a part of his twitter audience (an gain another) but won’t lose his contacts on Linkedin or friends on Facebook.

– people will me more likely to forward a message on a media than on a network where they’ll try not to bother others and check the information. This is even more true when it’s a business network. The level of implicit recommendation is not the same.

– people don’t like when brands mistake networks for medias. Example : businesses that create profile pages instead of fan pages on Facebook. Pages are here to be used as media inside the network and accepting “ACME Corp” as a friend on Facebook makes no sense. Sending such requests is a big mistake

– a message spreads less quickly out of its original sphere on a network. Twitter is more viral than Facebook. What does not means the target is more or less qualified.

Still a little rough but I think we’re getting closer to something worth.

Head of Employee and Client Experience @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of Employee and Client Experience @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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