The difference between social media and collaboration

Gonzales - Working Together
Image by Trypode via Flickr

We’ve been reading and creating a lot of chatter about “social media” for the past few years. And for the past year it’s been incessant non-stop cacophony about Twitter and Facebook and gurus and is-blogging-relevant-anymore and Foursquare and so on. Non-stop.

In all that chatter it’s been easy to miss the point of social media. The whole point of social-anything is that we all do something together. Social technologies are there to assist collaboration between people. Even if that collaboration is just to have a barbecue together.

If I had to choose whether I wanted to focus on understanding the nature of collaboration vs understanding the nature of social media I know which one I would choose.

Let’s  not confuse collaboration with the tools and tactics of social media.

A lot of my time is spent trying out and playing with new technologies to see how they might fit into my clients’ businesses. Here’s how I keep “collaboration” separate from “social media” in my work. Maybe it’ll be helpful for you. Maybe you’ve got an even better perspective (please share!).

Characteristics of social media

Social media is a specific tool or website. The metrics that are often touted as proof of a successful social media site or tool tend to be based on increasing inputs to the system: more users, more status updates, more user data input into the site. It’s not necessarily all quantitative stuff either. It could be qualitative: best users, best status updates, best user data input into the site.

What social media is typically not measured on though, is how often something really happens with all that “social” energy that is being gathered. This is why, after the algae bloom of social media gurus in the past year, we’re going to have another crop of skeptics asking a very simple question:

The thing about social media is that the goals of “media” are not always well-aligned with the needs of “social” aka “people.” People want to collaborate, but the social tools are built to generate more status updates and “active users.”

If you feel uneasy while talking about the value of social media this is probably why. Deep down many of us feel that “social” means a lot more than pumping our details into a Facebook profile.

Characteristics of collaboration

Collaboration, on the other hand, is platform-agnostic. Collaboration is two or more people working together to do or make something. Sometimes that thing they make is a barbecue or a party or even a Tweetup. Sometimes people collaborate to do business. Sometimes they collaborate to have fun. You can use Facebook to collaborate, you can use Twitter to collaborate. The world’s largest social media site, Skype, is really good for collaboration. Collaboration will continue to exist long after Facebook is placed on the shelf next to SixDegrees, long after Twitter takes it’s place next to .Plan updates.

There really isn’t a great metric for assessing the value of collaboration though. It’s not as easy as “number of eyeballs” which is, sadly, the metric that is often used for measuring anything on the web. Even after all these years.

There are attempts at calculating engagement metrics or even a return-on-engagement. But often these devolve into things like “time on site” or other things that really have nothing to do with collaboration. Looking at a website for 20 minutes doesn’t have a direct relationship to me collaborating with a real human. Could be I’m putting off collaborating with a real human by reading blog posts or worse, I’m lost in your site’s navigation.

This isn’t an anti-social media rant, I swear.

I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. I think social media tools and sites are great and can be used very effectively. In fact, social media sites and tools can be used to help us understand how we all work and make things together. And that’s awesome. Social media sites and tools, when used well, are a great testbed for understanding collaboration.

Value your social media tools and tactics based on how they can increase your ability to collaborate with friends, business partners, clients, client-alumnae and so on. Use your social media tools and tactics to learn about how people collaborate. If you chase eyeball-metrics, chase them in the name of increasing collaboration.

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