- August
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Social media metaphors: what do we mean to say?

The topic of metaphor came up the other evening over dinner with some friends. Metaphor, and social media in particular. We had gathered at the behest of Andreas Weigend with the express purpose of having an “intelligent conversation” about the social web. Not that most conversations are unintelligent or stupid. But that most are held only falteringly during events and at parties. Besides myself, Mark Plakias Jerry Michalski and Eric Doyle were also at the table.

I raised the matter of metaphor simply to kick off the conversation. I commented that I’d been trying to understand how it is that we talk about social media, emphasizing that how we talk about it often translates into our work: what we design, what we advise, how we analyze trends, and so on.

I mentioned that I’d been interested, too, in how industry leaders talk about social media, and in the sometimes subtle but meaningful differences between their terminologies. Brian Solis has been talking about publics (instead of audiences). Jason Falls talks about relationships.

(Sidenote: Brian talks about putting the public back in PR; Jason about putting relationships back in PR. Both are right, if understood through their own lens).

Tara Hunt’s concept of Whuffie is a form of social capital, and related to one’s personal brand and influence. Chris Heuer (of Adhocnium and Social Media Club fame) emphasizes the conversation, and if you know Chris, it is clear why. Stowe Boyd hews more closely to the network, or more accurately, its edges, where culture, technology, and social practices co-mingle and conspire to create new kinds of interactions.

I suppose these distinctions are obvious when you get to know these people and their work. I’m not psychologizing friends and colleagues here, but simply making a point about metaphor: we describe things as we see them. How we describe them shapes and informs what we think about them, and thus how we talk about them.

“We assume more than we know.” — David Hume
“A man’s reach exceeds his grasp, or what’s a metaphor?” — Marshall McLuhan

Metaphors are ideas that substitute for other ideas. A metaphor is usually a linguistic concept whose meaning is both greater, more ambiguous, and more general than the concept it substitutes for.

There is nothing wrong with metaphors. But we can easily take them for fact, for objectivity, for reality, which they are not. They are expressions (and necessary ones). But when we describe phenomena like “social media” in terms of “relationships” “audiences,” “publics,” “trust,” “conversation,” “communication,” “markets,” and so on, we are in effect making claims built on foundations of sand. Those of us in social media describe it as we see it, emphasizing the actions, uses, insights, benefits, profits, trends, or whatever, that work for us (given what we do and how we make a living):

Brian Solis: audiences > publics = PR people, change the way you think about who you are communicating to.
Jason Falls: promotion > sharing = PR people, change the way you act, treat people with respect for they are partners in a relationship
Tara Hunt: branding > whuffie = Do great things, be a part of your community, listen, and be more an inspiring and person of leadership

We are reflected in how we talk, in how we see things and in how we think they work. All of these people are right, from the perspective they have taken on social media. Yes to Brian, it is about a paradigm shift away from the old, traditional PR/audience relationship to a much different one. Yes to jason, it is about using what you know about relationships to achieve promotion but in a better way. Yes to Tara, it’s about the personal and community, which when you see it is really so clearly what branding was always about (but lost sight of).

I find this stuff fascinating, and of course, we have only scratched the surface.

  • The design world has many metaphors around users, design, influence and control, and the big one –“use” itself;
  • Technologists have many metaphors, reflecting assumptions about problems, solutions, utility, efficiency, and their big one “better.”
  • Economists and business people have theirs, focused on markets, exchange, demand/supply, production, and their big one: value.
  • And so on.

The point here is not to personalize common social metaphors or claims. It’s to raise an issue with respect to the social media space in general. Metaphors easily become facts, truths, claims. Ideas taken for granted. They are embedded into arguments, which is to say, opinions. Soon enough we are all using terms like “relationship,” “transparency,” “community,” “conversation,” and we don’t really know what we mean any longer. At which point it becomes difficult to speak with precision. And misunderstandings then proliferate.

I, for one, don’t often know what is meant by “conversation” and I use the term “conversational media” regularly. I don’t know what “transparency” means. I definitely do not know what “relationship” means, because I’ve heard that one used in brand terms that violate my sense of “relationship.”

It helps to know who is talking, in order to better understand how the term is being used. But that’s not a feasible expectation. And terms, and how we use them, change. When we use a term like “relationship” do we literally mean that Coca Cola has relationships with its customers? I’ve had thousands to drink and yet felt anything about the brand. I love the taste, love the experience, but the brand? Do we mean “like a relationship?” This will be a topic of another post, as I don’t know what “relationship” means, and it bothers me to think that people can really only know relationships with living things, mostly people. So if “relationship” means personal relationships, then we may have a misused and inappropriate metaphor. Perhaps it’s time to admit that what we really mean is “communication.”

This was what has been on my mind of late. I’m really interested in knowing how social media work, well enough to formalize some of it in a description that works for industry professionals. In studying the field, and coming to know many of its pioneers, I’ve enjoyed the differences among people much more than the similarities. Each of these people is, wittingly or not, to some degree responsible for new understandings, and for observations, descriptions, and explanations that contribute to the “discipline” (if this is one!).

I probably hail from a place where terminological precision is a more valued facet of communication than communication, and clarity, itself. But I do think we gain substantial insight when we examine our own language, and when we think critically about the terms we use, and how we use them.


  • Adrian – great blog post about metaphors. I think I get what you're trying to say here (and correct me if I'm wrong)…you're understanding is that all these thought leaders like Jason Falls, Brian Solis & Tara Hunt are all basically saying the same thing? I think that we ultimately are trying to say the same thing, but slightly different enough that we're carving out a niche for ourselves to satisfy a common goal. It seems that everyone who is “teaching” is basically saying that we need to return back to the personal aspect of communication (marketing AND public relations).

    I don't necessarily think the word “metaphor” is the right one to use in this case. Isn't it more appropo to use “synonym” instead since all the words are basically related to the other? Of course I'm not an English major – lucky that I can even speak the language let alone actually write about it.

    Let me harp back to one of your last few paragraphs where you talk about not understanding the word “conversation” or even “transparency”. Those are basically “buzz words” – you know, something that marketing and PR folks like me come up with to sound really smart and it's simple words to remember without thinking about multiple words. Conversation is basically dialogue. Bottom line is that we're all looking for a dialogue with our customers (stakeholders, investors, moms & dads, kids, students, old people, etc.). This is bringing everything backt o being personal. It's no longer a “spray and pray” mentality and shouldn't be one since now we can go reach out to people interested in our product on a more “meta” level, so to speak.

    Transparency is nothing different that just being honest and up-front. It's just putting a human face on something – imagine having a “virtual” face to face meeting with a customer rep at Best Buy. That customer rep gives you information about a product and you'll know that they are telling you bull or legit stuff based on body language or their talk. Or better yet, look at Tiger Woods and his endorsements. You *know* that he's being a salesperson when he talks about Buick, Nike, etc so there's an aura of transparency there. All about disclosure.

  • Ken,

    I think we're all saying something slightly different, but about the
    same thing — each of us has a way of viewing the industry, based on
    what we do and what we're doing about it. One could do a discourse
    analysis of what pundits have been saying since the emergence of
    social media, as a way of tracking our language and of observing the
    shifts in terminology and emphasis. I do think we're at a point where
    many folks are differentiating their own personal and professional
    brands, and consequently there's a greater distinction among thought
    leaders. But we're still all talking about social media.

    Perhaps it's not metaphor, perhaps it's “concepts.” Whatever the term,
    the idea is that our representations of social media necessarily use
    existing language and concepts, which we individually and collectively
    modify to embrace what's different about social media. Thus, depending
    on the person, this might be PR, marketing, advertising, end user
    experiences, technologies, what have you. But in our use of concepts
    like community, conversation, relationships, audiences, publics,
    influence and so on, I don't think we all mean the same thing — and
    these terms are very loosely defined and used.

    This is not an academic or scientific field — precision in concepts
    is not a requirement. Insofar as we help others learn about social
    media, what they can do, how they work, where they're going, we use
    terms to emphasize our own insights and observations, our own angle on
    the thing. It would be interesting to have a break down of the
    variations that exist in how these terms are used — by thought
    leaders, but also perhaps by the mass media, the public, and of course
    customers. Separately, it falls to each of us to be clear in our use
    of terms that direct our clients to what we can deliver and
    accomplish. That's where terms like community, relationships,
    influence etc are really important — they're terms that awaken
    clients to possibilities (they have buzz), but I think it's important
    that we are specific about our promises and deliverables.

    Take conversation for example — yes, as you say, it's dialog. But for
    some it's harnessing dialogue between customers (“go where the
    conversation is”). For others it's, as you point out, conversation
    between companies and their customers (leading to “transparency”).

    I have a separate post on transparency already written — found that
    we can break it down into three kinds of “truth.” But that's a
    separate post.

    Great comments man!

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