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"Social Media" and the "Social Internet": What's the Difference?
The entire internet is social, not just the apps you call "social media."
I just finished with the first draft of a manuscript for a book I am writing that is along the same thematic lines of this newsletter: understanding the social internet and its often-hidden effects on us. The book will be releasing in September 2021, and I will be sure to keep you posted on its progress as it makes its way through editing and the like.
In the book I am careful to use the term “social internet” more than the more commonly used term “social media.” I have a good reason for this, which I explain in the book. Given that I also use the term “social internet” in this newsletter a lot, I thought it would also be helpful if I explained/defined “social media,” the “social internet,” why they’re different, and why I think that difference matters in how we perceive this digital world in which we live.
Also, before we get into it, let me be clear that these definitions/explanations are mostly my own. Many other people in the social media/digital content space also talk about social media and the social internet in the ways I am about to describe, but I’m not really copy-pasting others’ ideas or parroting them. This is just sort of how I have come to see “social media” and the “social internet” as similar, but a bit different.
What Is Social Media?
Social media is best understood, and most often used as a term, in reference to the social platforms and apps that we used to connect with people around the world in which the primary function of the platform/app is connecting with other people.
The examples should be obvious: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Reddit, Pinterest, Snapchat, and others. What’s interesting is that, technically speaking, YouTube is considered a social media platform. I have always wondered if that should be the case. YouTube is really like if the internet had a cable news channel. It’s a lot less about connecting with people than it is about watching television (or shorter versions of television) online. But, given the active communities and comment sections and the like on YouTube, I do think it is fairly considered “social media” in the sense that the other platforms are. I just wanted to note that it is, in fact, a bit different of a beast.
So, social media are the platforms we use to connect with other people, though other activities (like reading the news) also take place on them. Email is its own thing. The New York Times website is not social media. Your fantasy football league is not social media. Amazon is not social media.
Ok, so if Facebook, Twitter, and the like are “social media” what is the “social internet”?
What Is the Social Internet?
The “social internet” is best understood as the ways in which every single part of the internet is social including social media, but beyond social media. Imagine the “social internet” is one big square and social media is a slightly smaller square inside the big one.
Back in the day, in like the late 1990s, common people like you and me couldn’t really create content on the internet. Only techies or journalists or others who had special privileges could make content for the internet—this was “Web 1.0.”
When the internet fundamentally changed around 1999-2000 and common users like you and me could start posting to forums, writing blogs, or submitting product reviews on websites, “Web 2.0” was ushered in and the entire internet became social in a way it had never been before. So, really, the “social internet” pre-dates social media. People don’t really think of early forums or chat rooms when they think of “social media,” but those services paved the way for the platforms to which we are all addicted today.
To reiterate: the social internet, as I like to use it, is a term to broadly describe all the ways in which the internet is social, including, but not limited to, the ways we connect on the well-known social media platforms of Facebook, Instagram, and the like.
Why the Difference Matters
“So,” you may be thinking, “This is all well and good, but why does it matter if we think about ‘social media’ or the ‘social internet’ separately?”
Good question. Allow me to try to explain why I think the difference between these terms matters.
When we talk about social media, apps and logos immediately pop into our heads. We think of that funny tweet we read while waiting in line at Starbucks. We think of the argument we saw our uncle start on Facebook. We wonder if we should buy the cute earrings we saw our favorite influencer post on Instagram. When we think about “social media” we have an incredibly narrow view of experiences, mostly confined to the apps that are social media apps.
What we miss when we only think in terms of “social media” and not in terms of the “social internet” is that virtually all of our experiences on the internet are social in some form or function, not just the experiences we have on our preferred social media platforms. When you Google, “Why are my eyes bloodshot?” the answer that appears on your screen was generated by a person not a robot. When you look at the reviews for a new donut shop in your town you’d like to try, the reviews you read are written by people not artificial intelligence. When you purchase a used bicycle on ebay, you’re purchasing that bike from a person not a website.
Our social experiences, and their resultant effects on our lives, extend far beyond the time we sink into Instagram, YouTube, and other traditional “social media” platforms. I think that if we are going to work toward having a health relationship with our phones and the content we consume on our phones, we need to not only consider the effects of “social media,” but also the effects of the broader “social internet.”
The entire internet is social, or 95% of it is anyway, and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can understand how it works and that our relationship with it should be intentional and not careless.