Blog post

Defining Social Media: Mass Collaboration is Its Unique Value

By Anthony J. Bradley | March 08, 2011 | 10 Comments

A little while back I posted a “New Definition of Social Media” where I defined six core principles that set social media apart from other forms of communication and collaboration. It got a pretty good response. But people have asked me for a more succinct definition that sits above the six principles that hammers home the differentiation.

So here it is:

Social media is an on-line environment established for the purpose of mass collaboration.

This definition is simple yet has some powerful constructs.

  • Social media is the environment not the technology (i.e., Facebook is a social media environment built on social networking technology and Wikipedia is a social media environment built on wiki technology).
  • You must have a purpose for the technology for it to be social media other wise it’s just technology. Notice how I worked “purpose” into the definition Smile 
  • Though you can do many things with social media (like 1:1 interactions and mass communications) it’s real and unique value comes from mass collaboration.
  • Not just collaboration but mass collaboration. Never before have such large numbers of people been able to effectively collaborate. If I had the power to redefine a few things I would use the term “mass collaboration technology” rather than social technology (or the many permutations like social media technology, social computing technology, etc.) because social technology is too broad and doesn’t capture the unique value proposition of the new technologies (isn’t the telephone a social technology). If the technology you choose for your social media channel doesn’t support mass collaboration then you are in trouble.

Oh, what the heck, since I’m defining things why don’t I just add:

Social media channels are enabled by a new set of mass collaboration technologies.

And while were at it:

Mass collaboration is the ability of large numbers of people, who may have no preexisting connection, to effectively work against a common goal.

Now the six principles help define what it means to enable mass collaboration.

Thoughts? Do you like it? Loath it? Agree, disagree? Let’s test it under fire.

Help me out I’m trying to mass collaborate here! Should we add these to Wikipedia Smile

The current Wikipedia definition is this, “Social media are media for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable communication techniques.” This is lacking in my view. Again, wouldn’t the telephone qualify here? What about e-mail? Skype? No talk of channels or mass collaboration.

They follow this definition with “Social media is the use of web-based and mobile technologies to turn communication into interactive dialogue. Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein also define social media as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, which allows the creation and exchange of user-generated content.”[1] Businesses also refer to social media as consumer-generated media (CGM). A common thread running through all definitions of social media is a blending of technology and social interaction for the co-creation of value.” Only a tech geek would understand and be inspired by this paragraph. They could preface this paragraph with the message [business people need not read any further].

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


  • Peter Matulka says:

    Social Media may open the doors for mass communication, allowing us to reach unknown audiences. But the true value behind social media is in the 1:1. Lets use the analogy of fishing:

    A troller drops a line and catches 5000 fish (not all edible, btw). And it takes this many fish to make the troller’s journey worthwhile. These fish are likes, clickthroughs, follows, etc to a large brand.

    A lone fisherman needs to catch 2 edible fish off the dock to feed his family that night. You see to a small business owner or more niche brands, it becomes quality over quantity and requires an intimate relationship.

    Social media channels are getting better at allowing us to form larger amounts of quality relationships, but in the end it is still a 1:1 connection. The writer somehow connecting with the reader.

    Here’s my definition:
    Social media is a communications channel opened for the purpose of developing valuable relationships.

    Let me ask you this: Do you still get excited when you’re alerted on your BB or iPhone that someone commented on your personal profile on Facebook? I know I do.

  • Lori Rice says:

    I love the concept of collaboration in social networking environments and would like to learn more. Thanks!

  • Anthony J. Bradley says:

    Peter, thanks for your comments. I wrote the post specifically for you. Because social media is not about 1:1. It also isn’t about mass communication. It is about mass collaboration. It is about deriving value from collective efforts that is otherwise impossible. Look at a few of the huge social Web successes like wikipedia and YouTube. There is no 1:1 interactions whatsoever. Sure you can use social media for 1:1 but that isn’t why it is so powerful. Now finding that 1 person in the masses who can help you is powerful but it isn’t the 1:1 here that is the phenomenon it is the mass collaboration aspect of finding that person in the crowds (e.g., expertise location).

    Even with Facebook and Twitter it isn’t about 1:1. What makes Facebook so powerful is that we all collaborated to build the world’s largest social network. And Facebook allows me to keep track of what’s going on in my network WITHOUT the effort of 1:1. I can see what is going on and selectively contribute my thoughts. In fact when people try to interact with me 1:1 on Facebook it can get annoying fast because I simply don’t have the time for it.

  • Oleksandra Kryshtapovych says:

    Dear Anthony,

    Thanks a lot for this and one more valuable post of defining social media (the one about 6 core principles). I referenced them in my CIPR critical reasoning test as I believe they help wise men like Grunig to argue for symmetrical public relations. It has long been disputed if publics have the same power as PR practitioners on the particular issue and your quote “It is about deriving value from collective efforts that is otherwise impossible.” helps me think that now publics get stronger and more influential.

    The collaboration notion is also of great value for my research. Many thanks!

  • Anthony J. Bradley says:

    Thanks Oleksandra, social media does have strong potential for publics to gain influence. I fully expect it to happen as social media matures and “social unions” begin to form.

  • Lou Boffa says:

    Yes, the telephone is a form of social networking, so is the drumbeat, the smoke signal, art and all of the miriad forms of communication. Our species is driven–even adicted to contact with each other. For us, I believe it’s as primal as food, shelter and sex. It’s the scale of social media thats exciting and daunting. My specific challenge is to strategize how to use it in adult training. Webinars and CBL’s (let alone PowerPoints) are going the way of the ….cell phone. Can social media be used to change behaviour?

  • Clarence says:

    Why does intent matter? I like where you’re going with the definition, but it seems that “established for the purpose of” raises the bar to an unnecessary level….why not something like “which enables mass collaboration”?

  • Anthony J. Bradley says:

    Lou, you are, of course, correct that people have networked socially since the beginning of man. This is why I don’t like the term social media. Semantically, it is hard to argue that the telephone, drumbeats, and smoke signals are not social media. They are social and they are media. This is also why I prefer “mass collaboration” since this is really what is new. The “scale” as you put it. And I certainly have seen many organizations moving from trainer-centric to community-centric learning which can significantly change the role of the trainer/teacher. Check out It is an interesting social learning community. We have analysts, Carol Rozwell for example, that focus on social learning.

  • Anthony J. Bradley says:

    Clarence, great comment. Intent not only matters but is critical to success. Without intent social media is just technology. What would Wikipedia be without its intent as an on-line encyclopedia. It would just be a wiki. Most likely an empty wiki. Intent is why we participate. Intent, or purpose as I often call it, is all the important stuff that makes the social media environment more than just technology. Technology doesn’t inspire people to participate. Intent does. So the social technology is the enabler. Social media is the technology directed at an intent.

  • Companies cann make use of social media in a variety of ways.

    Storytelling: Employee training ideas based onn storytelling have
    been around sincxe Aristotle and they’re being ussed
    with tremendous success in Learning and Development initiatives.
    In fact, such strategies can backfire if would-be “fans” view a company’s
    social networking efforts as manipulation.