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!