Blog post

A New Definition of Social Media

By Anthony J. Bradley | January 07, 2010 | 21 Comments

I have been reading in the blogosphere and in the general press about the need for a better definition of social media. Indeed, my discussions with clients have validated this need. After having spent 10 months of 2009 hand collecting and analyzing 200 cases of successful social media implementations (I actually looked at over 400 cases but weeded out those that were not social in nature or were not successful), I feel that I have gained considerable insight into what is unique about social media. I recently published, “The Six Core Principles of Social-Media-Based Collaboration” (available to clients or for a fee) to help clients distinguish between social media and other forms of communications and collaboration. Here are some brief excerpts.

At its foundation, social media is a set of technologies and channels targeted at forming and enabling a potentially massive community of participants to productively collaborate. IT tools to support collaboration have existed for decades. But social-media technologies, such as social networking, wikis and blogs, enable collaboration on a much grander scale and support tapping the power of the collective in ways previously unachievable.

Six core principles underlie the value of social-media solutions, and, in combination, serve as the defining characteristics that set social media apart from other forms of communication and collaboration.

  1. Participation
  2. Collective
  3. Transparency
  4. Independence
  5. Persistence
  6. Emergence


Successful social-media solutions tap into the power of mass collaboration through user participation. The only way to achieve substantial benefits from social media is by mobilizing the community to contribute. You can’t capture the “wisdom of the crowds” if the crowds don’t participate. 


Varied definitions and applications of the term “collective” abound and cover a wide spectrum of meanings. Here, as a core principle of social media, the use of the term “collective” is tightly aligned with its root origins “to collect.” With social media, participants “collect” around a unifying entity. People collect around the Facebook social graph to contribute their profile information. People collect on Wikipedia to add encyclopedia articles. People collect on YouTube to share videos. In these examples, as in all social media, people collect around the content to contribute rather than individually create the content and distribute it.


With social media, it is not enough to collect participant contributions. A social-media solution also provides transparency in that participants are privy to each other’s participation. They get to see, use, reuse, augment, validate, critique and rate each other’s contributions. Without transparency, there is no participant collaboration on content. It is in this transparency that the community improves content, unifies information, self-governs, self-corrects, evolves, creates emergence and otherwise propels its own advancement.


The principle of independence means that any participant can contribute completely independent of any other participant. This is also called anytime, anyplace collaboration. Participants can collaborate no matter where they are or whoever else may be posting content at that time. Generally, there is no workflow or document check-in/check-out that can bottleneck collaboration and impact the scalability required for mass collaboration. No coordination between collaborators is required.


With social media, the fruits of participant contributions are captured in a persistent state for others to view, share and augment. This is one of the more obvious principles. It differentiates social media from synchronous conversational interactions, where much of the information exchanged is either lost or captured, most often only in part, as an additional scribing activity.


The emergence principle embodies the recognition that you can’t predict, model, design and control all human collaborative interactions and optimize them as you would a fixed business process. It is the recognition that one benefit of social media is as an environment for social structures to emerge. These structures may be latent or hidden organizational structures, expertise, work processes, content organization, information taxonomies, and more.

I’m interested in your take on this definition and differentiating principles.  Also see my subsequent post on a simpler definition of social media. BTW, I will spend the next few months publishing on my analysis of these 200 cases. I’ve put together some interesting social media use case patterns.

Clients should read the note (above link) for additional information such as comparisons, charts, case examples, references, and recommendations.

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

Leave a Comment


  • Ashok says:

    I am not sure how much detail is the published document. This is common sense and should have been the basic understanding for anyone. Can’t fathom the fact that a lot of effort has gone in to understand and define this…

  • Anthony Bradley says:

    My experience doesn’t indicate that this is common sense. Defining communications and collaboration may seem easy but when it comes down to the details of implementing different permutations, definitions vary widely. I have had many ask me the difference between social media and e-mail, KM, Web conferencing, etc. It may be obvious to some but it certainly isn’t to others and many implementations that people call “social media” do not meet these characteristics.

  • Doug Laney says:

    I think “perpetuation” is the big differentiator from other kinds of media. In older media/communication (print and even email) the message is between the sender and recipient with an understanding that unless otherwise specified, the message and conversation remains between them.

    With social media, on the other-hand, their is an implicit if not explicit understanding that the recipient is expected/encouraged to share (perpetuate) the message with his/her network. This is what makes social media truly unique.

    Keep em comin’.


  • Anthony Bradley says:

    Thanks for the comment Doug, long time no see, I hope you are well. This is a good observation and I have “perpetuate” or sharing (often virally) woven into a few of the above characteristics (certainly participation and emergence). I see perpetuate as important to social media but not necessarily unique. I think it is a unique characteristic of the Web. URL addressability gives us the ability to easily share a Web resource. Prior to social media there were plenty of e-mail threads shared virally with a link to some crazy video or picture.

  • Sumo says:

    Wikipedia: Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein define social media as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content” (Kaplan Andreas M., Haenlein Michael, (2010), Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media, Business Horizons, Vol. 53, Issue 1, p. 59-68.)

  • Monobel says:

    I’m wondering about the absence of \social media\ definitions. I trying to find a definition that I can you for my Master-Thesis. Until now I couldn’t find any in german and this was the first one in english. Do you have some lead to find it?

  • Anthony Bradley says:

    Monobel, I’m not sure where to find a good definiton in German. Maybe try the German Wikipedia for some references.

  • Monobel says:

    I’m not searching for only german definition, becase the probability of an english def. is higher. Do you know other usefull social media – definitions?

  • Monobel says:

    And another one question.

    The Six Core Principles of Social-Media-Based Collaboration – is this publication available only for the fee on or it can be found in a printed version (or online article)?

  • Bryan Wempen says:

    Enjoyed the article! As one gets under the “hood” of social media or more recently called “new media” it’s miles away from common sense of how it incorporates into organizations. For example we’re all chasing the realistic approaches for ROI with all these disruptive medias’.

    Your following statement is spot on: “when it comes down to the details of implementing different permutations, definitions vary widely”. The evolution of SM requires it to be finitely fluid, if that changes we have your other permutations or possibly a new vertical/movement.

    Look forward to more analysis and commentary.

    Bryan –

  • Anthony Bradley says:

    The publication is for a fee. The main reason I wrote it is because I didn’t believe there was a good definition out there that really captured what makes social media unique from other forms of collaborations and also what makes it so valuable. You can try wikipedia or some of the main Web 2.0 luminaries like Hinchcliffe, McAfee, Tapscott, etc. They all have definitions. I’m not saying they are great but that is what’s out there in the public domain.

  • Anthony Bradley says:

    You also can use this post. Sumarizing it into a single definition would be,

    “Social media is a set of technologies and channels targeted at forming and enabling a potentially massive community of participants to productively collaborate. Social media has the six core characteristics of participative, collective, transparent, independent, persistent, and emergent that deliver the unique value of social-media and, in combination, set social media apart from other forms of communication and collaboration.”

  • Dave Jones Buchere says:

    Good effort Bradley keep it up.

  • Glen says:

    So the old IRC wouldn’t classify as a form of social media? It’s definitely poor compared to the rich content of social media platforms today, but it still provided mass collaboration through channels. As Matt Smith Oct 2013 ( pictures it, as it was one of the earliest form of social media.

  • Anthony J. Bradley says:

    This post was originally created in early 2010. Much has changed in these past 5 years. I now would divide social media into several categories including communications and collaboration. IRC would qualify as social media communications but I do not believe it provides sufficient mass collaboration capabilities.

  • Mayowa says:

    I used your book (A New Definition of Social Media) in my project work please I need the reference of the book

  • Ninja says:

    Hi Anthony,

    I do totally agree with you. Much has changed in the last past 7 years and Social media is not the same as it used to be. It is now being used for communications and collaboration and IRC is more of a kind of social media communication channel.

  • Many theaters are closed due to different reasons, and after that social media has the biggest influence on entertainment. These days, people spend their time on Netflix and other sites, and this is the main reason for putting their results down.

  • Social Media is most probably your key to success having enormous power to change the world itself, The perspective I have is the new definition of social media.

  • wbnat says:

    You may have heard the term “social media” used a lot lately, but what exactly is it? Some people define social media as anything that allows users to interact with each other online, while others see it as a more specific platform such as Facebook or Twitter. So what’s the real definition of social media?

  • SammyHampton says:

    The term social media refers to a computer-based technology that facilitates the sharing of ideas, thoughts, and information through virtual networks and communities. Social media is internet-based and gives users quick electronic communication of content, such as personal information, documents, videos, and photos.