In this Sunday's "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine, I take on some modern meanings of social and related words like socialize. (Have you been in a meeting where someone has suggested socializing an idea?) We owe much of the recent rise of social-ity to those trendy online terms, social media and social networking. How did we manage to get so social simply by staring into our laptop screens?

Social networking made a big splash on the Web circa 2003, way back before Facebook and Twitter had become household words. (In those bygone days, Friendster and MySpace were all the rage.) When Paul McFedries first catalogued the term for his website Wordspy in early 2004, he noted that social networking had a long prehistory leading up to its online use:

The non-digital form of social networking — using a network of people to exchange information, enhance job prospects, or otherwise further one's career — began in the mid-70s (the earliest use of the phrase social network dates to 1976). It reached full flower during the go-go 80s, those heady quid-pro-quo, win-friends-and-influence-cocktail-party-people days. By the mid-90s, however, this form of networking faded from view, encrusted as it was in a thick layer of irony and comedians' jokes.

But then the virtual networking afforded by the Internet and the Web breathed new life into the expression. Before you knew it, people were complaining about social networking fatigue, while the time wasted surfing social networking sites during business hours came to be dubbed social notworking.

As other "social" sites began to emerge, including social bookmarking services like de.licio.us, a more all-encompassing term was needed. Social media started making headway around 2007 (though the first citation on Wordspy is actually from 1994, quaintly referring to pre-Web Internet forums like Usenet and IRC). The term truly came into its own in 2009, however. By year's end, it had overtaken the once-trendy buzzword Web 2.0 in Google search volume, as noted by Ben Parr on the social media blog Mashable.

The rush to social media over the past year or so has attracted its fair share of naysayers. In April 2009, Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research wrote in Ad Age that social media is a confusing label, thanks to "the baggage that comes along with the word 'media.'" "Media is something that media companies control, and media is overwhelmingly one-way," Bernoff argues. "The online social world is about as two-way, multi-way, any-way as it can be." More recently, Aliza Sherman and Olivier Blanchard have made similar cases against social media, suggesting alternatives like social web and social communications.

For better or for worse, social media is the term that has caught on, and there's likely no going back at this point. The top-down image of media evoked by Bernoff a year ago doesn't actually seem to be at play when Facebook and Twitter are talked about as social media, so perhaps that confusion has waned. I think English speakers are well-equipped to handle the polysemy of media, using it for both "the (mass) media" (as disseminated by traditional media companies) and the more bottom-up, user-generated type of collaborative exchanges that go on when people socialize online.

How do you feel about these new terms? Does the buzz over social media end up making you feel anti-social? Sound off in the comments below!


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Friday April 2nd 2010, 8:58 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Social media is fine with me. Of the alternatives mentioned above, social communications is too long-winded, and social web would be fine but has missed its chance. Media remains a very general and flexible term with very little baggage for me, corporate or otherwise. I can probably credit McLuhan for that.
Friday April 2nd 2010, 9:20 AM
Comment by: Stephanie S. (Blaine, MN)
I'm fine with a little social networking; just don't "facebook" me! Why, oh why do we have to verb all the good nouns?
Friday April 2nd 2010, 9:47 AM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
Where I work (large company full of older execs), the term social media has proven to be a confusing term. As we try to put policies around how we utilize social media, the broadness of the term's definition tends to hobble any effective communications and discussions.

For instance, if one exec thinks of social media as Facebook-y and another one thinks of it as YouTube, another blogging, and another LinkedIn -- all by just using the single 'social media' term and no further context -- it's almost unavoidable that there will be a misunderstanding.

Yes, YouTube, Facebook, and blogging all fit into the social media domain, but they are also so diverse in what they do and how they do it that it serves our language a disservice to lump all of these tools into a single social media terminology.

One of the 'solutions' offered was breaking these out into social media and social networking tools -- where social networking tools are more like LinkedIn and Facebook, and social media tools are more like blogs and YouTube. Not a bad cut, but this difference is not widely-enough understood to have any stickiness (at least in my organization).

Add to that the notion that social media is the 'bright shiny object' in business circles now, and it's a recipe for confusion.

If only language could help provide clarity here instead of add to the murkiness.

Jon
Friday April 2nd 2010, 11:15 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Hey, Stephanie! quote: oh why do we have to verb all the good nouns?
'to verb'? Very clever, though!

Social networking or social media(ing?), either is fine with me. I guess you social network on the social media.

I do think it's better to avoid the term 'socialized' as that can be confusing to some of us 'older' types familiar with the political term.

Would the formation of a common interest site, perhaps even an offshoot from a larger site, be considered a 'social network'? That has always confused me.

I belong to several sites where you must apply to be a member, stemming from common interests but moving on to friendship.

Here in Manitoba, there are things called 'socials'. They are money raising events, usually to cover the costs of a wedding, but sometimes for special needs. Those are parties to which tickets are sold. Drinks are served, music and dancing happen and sometimes an auction. My sister, who had four daughters get married, thought that was a marvellous idea, but it didn't work where she lives!
Friday April 2nd 2010, 11:39 AM
Comment by: Bosse B.
Time will sort these NEW things out, like it always does!!
Sunday April 4th 2010, 12:57 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
Social for me concern ; SOCIETY, WORKERS, LAW; Social legislation to improvement conditions of working .

you have sociological conditions,

for me SOCIAL include so much meanings, Stephanie. And don't forget, SOCIAL comes from Socialist , in france you have SOCIALIST PARTI.
you can meet social in Psychologgy, in Humane Science. All rules to help everybody happy, to continue your life whithout problems, at the very least.
Wednesday May 2nd 2012, 10:04 PM
Comment by: william Sebastien (cincinnati, OH)
can someone give some examples of "social"

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

It was a Twitter-driven year in 2009, as "tweet" won Word of the Year honors.
Happy Web Day!
- 4 Comments
Looking back on the linguistic history of the Web.
On social media sites like Facebook, what's not to "unlike"?