One term I hear a lot lately is "social media". From what I understand marketing people use this term to describe "everything but classic advertising in the internet". One big problem I have with the term and the discussion around it is that people use it in various contexts describing various aspects of it and making it look like "the big picture". In my opinion "social media" can't be understand as one big thing (like "mass media") working in one certain way with one set of rules.
I rather see a "Social Media Landscape" of various tools, ways to share or publish, connect and interact. And from what I see the rules differ between the areas in this landscape. But you can't adapt to the rules for this area when you don't know where you are. So lets start by looking at what this landscape looks like as of today.
The oldest country in this landscape is the land of Expertise Groups like Blogs, Wikis (like the Wikipedia), Forums but also Usenet Newsgroups. As parts of this country are older then the web itself people tend to exclude them. Most concentrate on Blogs and Wikis when they search for expertise. But classic forums, mailing lists and newsgroups have proven their value: While most Blogs are very personal and only a few people are able to contribute to one forums and mailing lists are mostly open to everyone.
This also has an effect on the way people communicate there. In forums people seek for answers to theirs questions and ask for support while Bloggers mostly share their opinions or experiences. In Blogs others can only contribution by commenting or opening a Blog on their own. Both are widely used in communities and companies to manage their support. There is a Blog or forum for almost everything today. And newer tools and platforms (like blogger, tumblr, posterous, yahoo answers, getsatisfaction) make it even easier to set up Blogs or support forums and involve the community.
With the increased availability of high bandwidth all over the world the sharing of high quality media became more possible and the first Media Sharing Platforms started. Most of them began with a limitation on media you could upload and although they expanded their portfolio over time most of them are still known for being dominant in a certain area only. The biggest names in this area are Flickr, Picasa, Youtube, Dailymotion, Vimeo and Last.fm. Later other platforms to sharing more indirect media information like Links and Favourites (like Delicious) or News (like digg.com) arose.
Almost all of these platforms involve the user more than just uploading the content. They allow the users to group, tag and categorize. Users can share theirs thoughts on others media (commenting), rate or favourite content. This allows these platforms to detect interesting aspects like the "most watched video" or "best rated picture" and trends. Although using simple algorithms the concept of "The Wisdom of the crowd" adds a higher value and another context to the content. A value one person alone would never be able to provide.
The youngest in the Social Media Landscape are the Social Networks. These Platforms allow people to (re-)connect with friends, relatives and peers easily and share information within their social circle. This adds an extra layer to the context of an information. Although the wisdom of the crowd allows to find good content easily a movie suggestion by a friend having a similar taste than I do has much more value for me personally.
Most of the Media Sharing Platforms allow similar techniques by now but it isn't their main purpose. That is different on Facebook, Twitter or StayFriends. They all started with the social communication and relation ships at the base and added all other tools for media sharing on top. Today they have an "all offered by one hand" position almost no other Media Sharing Platform is able to provide. This puts them into a very powerful position.
At the same time Social Networks became popular Purpose Driven Networks appeared as well. That might the reason why those get confused from time to time. But in my opinion they are quiet contradictory. I talk about all the Business Platforms like LinkedIn or Xing. Although you build up real relations and talk to real people socializing ain't their main goal. There is a higher purpose behind them. The same is valid for partner ship networks (where you seek your soul mate) or other platforms with a clear purpose behind the curtain.
As their base goal ain't the social interaction and relation between people they almost always offer a quiet different set of tools and features. Features serving the main goal of the people of said platform. For example it is easy to organize a business event or publish your CV on platforms like LinkedIn. That makes it also easy to find someone to hire or business partners but it ain't possible to find or connect with your friends and share your latest holiday pictures.
Social interaction just ain't the goal of these networks. Which is totally fine as they are not Social Networks in the first place. They use socializing as a tool to serve their purpose. While in Social Networks it is the purpose, everything else comes on top of that: While talking to people you might find a new job (as someone suggested you after reading you are looking for one) or meet your soul mate and share your wedding.
So, the next time someone talks about "Social Media" ask him (or yourself) which area in this huge landscape he is referring to.