Making Sense Of Social Media
To understand the landscape you need to break social media down into its elemental pieces. As I can see it, social media as a blanket term is the one category that overlaps the most with other categories in emerging media, further making it difficult to sort through. That being said, I think you can break social media down into four primary categories:
Social networks are the simplest and where most things began. The Web was primarily a social form of media from its inception, and social networks are the logical extensions of homepages and email, allowing people to post information about themselves and share information with their networks of friends. Email was the initial way people kept in touch, but there are problems with trying to keep in touch with too many individual people via email. However, social networking allows you to stay updated on all your friends, and your pseudo-friends (those people I would typically refer to as acquaintances). I personally find it interesting how digital media and the advent of social networking has altered the definition of the word "friends" to something more open and easier to achieve. In my mind, friendship is more difficult than just sending an email or asking to be allowed into a network -- but social networking has changed that, and people are proud to say they have hundreds or thousands of friends, many of which they've never met before in real life. MySpace is still the largest social network, but seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent months.
Social applications refer to the next stage of social networking where applications and services are offered to networks of people. Social applications can also refer to the linking and surfing between pages based on interests rather than pictures. In social networks people appear to interact mostly based on photos of friends, whereas social applications are more of a utility, where people are joining groups and sharing actual information. It's a more intelligence-based model. Facebook is still the most progressive in this category, but here you also find photo-sharing (Flickr) and video-sharing (YouTube) as well as the new wave of tools for social endorsements (SocialVibe).
Citizen journalism is not new either; it's been around since back in the days of Geocities and Tripod, but it got real hot again just a couple of years ago. Those sites allowed anyone to create and post a Web page in a simple matter of minutes, but now blogging and wikis and social tagging sites have become all the rage. Blog sites allow anyone to post a stream of consciousness almost as quickly as they can think it up, and social tagging sites allow for the wisdom of the crowds to be implemented; whatever the masses think should be interesting becomes of interest. Sites like Digg and StumbleUpon fall here, as do Blogger and Typepad. Of course some of these sites can overlap with social applications, so we find the lines blurring and distinctions to be unclear. That's the definition of Web 2.0; where the lines blur and technology is bent to the needs of the individual.
The last category of interest here are virtual worlds. Virtual worlds are the most difficult to follow because they overlap the most with another emerging media category: gaming. Virtual worlds also overlap with social networks and social applications because they provide a social environment, but one that is multi-dimensional rather than fixated on a profile page or a Web site. Second Life was the most hyped player here, but we also find Sony Home, Wee World and even more elaborate game environments such as The Sims and World of Warcraft.
So you can see how social media gets more and more complex; but if you try to break down each new company into one of these core buckets you can build a competitive landscape and identify how to start weaving your brand into the social tapestry.