Updated social media definitions, categories, and top tools of 2016

I was recently asked by a client to update an informational section on their website that dealt with the basics of the current social media landscape. While reviewing some of the existing definitions and beginner resources on the web, I noticed that quite a few could use an update based on how rapidly the social space has evolved over the last few years alone. The following post is a slightly modified version of what I came up with.

Social Media tools and applications continue to grow in both popularity and usage. They have fundamentally changed the way people interact around the globe, and have democratized the Internet. The technological and publishing barriers that have previously restricted an individual, business, community, or organization from creating content and sharing it with a global audience are no longer present. This is especially true in our modern highly-connected world, which now includes 3.4 billion Internet users , of which the vast majority are accessing the internet via a mobile device. According to Nielsen, Internet users continue to spend more time with social media sites than any other type of site . Across the globe, communicators and marketers within organizations are harnessing the power of social media to reach new audiences, influence their behaviour or beliefs, establish and build relationships, and to foster desired outcomes in targeted audiences. Increasingly, the data produced on social media platforms is also being used for research purposes across a variety of organizational functions so as to provide better business intelligence for more informed decision making.

Key Definitions & Examples
Social Media is defined on Wikipedia as “computer-mediated tools that allow people or companies to create, share, or exchange information, career interests, ideas, and pictures/videos in virtual communities and networks.” A more recent and slightly broader Cambridge elaboration on that definition is “the many relatively inexpensive and widely accessible electronic tools that enable anyone to publish and access information, collaborate on a common effort, or build relationships”.

While the most common definitions of social media tend to primarily revolve around the tools themselves, the disruption created by these tools has led to new concepts and terms gaining popularity across various organizations. These include:

  • Social Media Engagement: Two-way engagement on social media platforms with online communities to generate exposure, opportunity and achievement of set goals.
  • Social Media Marketing: The process of integrating social media into an overall strategic marketing plan, aimed at achieving specific marketing goals.
  • Social Business: The deep integration of social media and social methodologies into the entire organization to drive business impact.

As organizations move to a more strategic focus on social media, many are including social media as a component of a much broader digital strategy.

  • Digital Strategy: The process of specifying an organization’s vision, goals, opportunities and related activities in order to maximize the business benefits of digital initiatives to the organization. These can range from an enterprise focus, which considers the broader opportunities and risks that digital potentially creates (e.g., changes in the publishing industry) and often includes customer intelligence, collaboration, new product/market exploration, sales and service optimization, enterprise technology architectures and processes, innovation and governance; to more marketing and customer-focused efforts such as web sites, mobile, eCommerce, social, site and search engine optimization, and advertising

Top Social Media Tools
Listed below are the top 20 global social media tools as of January 2016 , ranked by the amount of active users in descending order:

  1. Facebook
  2. WhatsApp*
  3. QQ*
  4. FB Messenger*
  5. Qzone
  6. WeChat*
  7. Tumblr
  8. Instagram
  9. Twitter
  10. Skype*
  11. Baidu Tieba
  12. Viber*
  13. Sina Weibo
  14. Line*
  15. Snapchat*
  16. Yy
  17. Vkontakte
  18. Pinterest
  19. BBM*
  20. LinkedIn

*Chat app / Messenger / VOIP

Social Media Characteristics
Common characteristics among social media tools and applications include:

  • Utilize web-based (and increasingly mobile) technology
  • Focus on interaction / two-way communication between users vs. one-way communication
  • Encourage and rely on user-generated content that may be collaborative in nature
  • Generate a wealth of data, which is then mined for continual algorithmic optimization
  • Emphasize and celebrate the “genuine voice” instead of formal corporate-style messaging

Genuine Voice is the term used to describe the style of social media writing, reportage and commentary. The term is a reference to the real, more casual, often unscripted writing style that avoids corporate, bureaucratic or stilted language. Since social media users and commentators are everyday people, they tend to use their own, natural style of writing when using social media tools and applications. A fresh, real approach to language is often a hallmark of social media outlets.

Social Media Categories
It should be noted that a particular tool can belong to numerous categories as new features and functionality are built in on a regular basis. Plenty of social media platforms have evolved, pivoted and/or ended up completely deviating from their original purpose. Additionally, how individuals actually use a particular tool can vary considerably from user to user. I like to put modern social media tools into one or more of the following five broad categories.

  1. Social/relationship networks (there are numerous sub-categories here)
  2. Social/instant messaging
  3. Blogging
  4. Review/rating/sharing sites
  5. Discussion forums

For an alternate, slightly older, albeit more extensive list of categories (along with a corresponding infographic) please refer to conversationprism.com.

1.) Social/Relationship Networks
These are typically defined as platforms that allow users to build social networks or social relations among people who share similar interests, activities, backgrounds or real-life connections. A social network service consists of a representation of each user (often a profile), his or her social links, and a variety of additional services/functions. Relationship networks offer a unique chance for brands/organizations to connect to their users on a personal level. Modern social networks can be further broken down into the following categories:

  • General networks: Social networks that can be used in a variety of ways as opposed to having a main focus. Examples: Facebook , Twitter
  • Professional networks: Social networks created with career development and professional networking in mind. Examples: LinkedIn , About.me
  • Interest-based networks: Social networks that have been specifically created around a specific topic or interest area. Examples: Patients Like Me , GovLoop
  • Media sharing networks: Social networks that are defined by the primary type of media shared among users. Examples: Instagram, Vine
  • News networks: Social networks where users share external links to news items and also vote on the different links to choose the most popular ones and display them for public viewing. Examples: Reddit , StumbleUpon

2.) Social / Instant Messaging
These applications are essentially instant messaging (IM) or mobile messaging clients that are built around social networking platforms. While both require an internet connection, social messaging apps differ from traditional IMs because they don’t require a computer to use, and the chat applications run primarily on smartphone devices. This challenges other widely used mobile features, such as calling, texting, and emailing. More and more people are upgrading from feature phones to smartphones, thus accelerating the move from traditional calling and SMS (which are paid services) to social messaging (which are generally freemium or subscription-based), to become the dominant way of staying in touch on the phone . 

Examples: WhatsApp, WeChat

3.) Blogging
“Blog” is an abbreviated version of “weblog,” which is a term used to describe websites that maintain an ongoing chronicle of information. A blog features diary-type commentary and links to articles on other websites, usually presented as a list of entries in reverse chronological order. Blogs range from the personal to the political, and can focus on one narrow subject or a whole range of subjects. Many blogs focus on a particular topic, such as web design, home staging, sports, or mobile technology. Some are more eclectic, presenting links to all types of other sites and others are more like personal journals, presenting the author’s daily life and thoughts. Corporate blogs are blogs launched, operated and maintained by corporate entities that share information with their audiences, often employing genuine voice or a less structured and less formal approach to communications. Common elements of blogs and blogging include openness to sharing information, and the ability for users to respond to, comment on, and converse about the content found on the blog. What constitutes a blog has evolved considerably over the years, especially now that many modern corporate and/or personal websites are built on blogging platforms such as WordPress, simply because they allow for easy content publishing without any knowledge of HTML (coding). Generally speaking, (although there are exceptions), blogs in their traditional sense tend to have a few things in common:

  • A main content area with articles listed chronologically, newest on top. Often, the articles are organized into categories.
  • An archive of older articles.
  • A way for people to leave comments about the articles.
  • One or more “feeds ” that allow for automatic subscription

Examples: Blogger, WordPress

4.) Review/Rating/Sharing Sites
Location-based review services are getting more traction as personal social networks adopt geolocation, and more users choose to consult the Internet along with their friends for recommendations of best dining spots. There are sites to review anything from hotels, restaurant or your latest employer—and user reviews have more weight than ever before. Sites like Airbnb and Uber, the biggest service providers in the emerging sharing economy, rely largely on host and driver reviews, respectively, to determine who benefits from the service .

Examples: Yelp, Airbnb

For a comprehsinve recent list of sharing economy categories, please refer to the Collaborative Economy Honeycomb – Version 3.0 by Jeremiah Owyang

5.) Discussion Forums
This is a general term for any online “bulletin board” where you can leave and expect to see responses to messages you have left. Or you can just read the board. The first discussion boards were available on bulletin board systems. On the Internet, Usenet provides thousands of discussion boards; these can now sometimes be viewed from a Web browser. Many websites offer discussion boards so that users can share and discuss information and opinions.

Examples: Quora, LawStudents

Naturally, each one of the above five categories can be sub-categorized endlessly (as I started to do with the first), however I think this is a good starting point for people looking for the big-picture overview.