This blog post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review (hbr.org).
The headline in the New York Times business section was instantly exciting: “Kleiner Perkins and Partners Create $250 Million ‘Social’ Fund.”
Another progressive venture fund, this one driven by social justice rather than environmental issues? Fantastic! But reading the full article on the New York Times blog dispelled my enthusiasm:
Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of social networking, the well-known venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers is teaming up with heavyweights of the social Web to create a $250 million fund to invest in social start-ups. The “sFund” was announced by John Doerr, a Kleiner veteran, on Thursday at a star-studded press conference at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif….In an interview, Mr. Doerr said applications and infrastructure to support social experiences on the Web would continue to grow rapidly.
Oh, so they meant social media, not social enterprise. You’d think that after five years of working in online community and social media, that I would assume that’s what someone meant when they said “social.”
And yet, for me, social media remains the other kind of social. The primary meaning is still social as in “of society.” Social as in social change, social justice, social responsibility, social policy and social services. Social as in, hey, we’re all in the same society, so let’s act as if we actually care about one another.
I started using social to describe the “social web” back in 2006. Up until then, I’d used the term “online community” or “Web 2.0”; but I was working with Marnie Webb on NetSquared, and she started using the phrase “social web” to refer to the focus of this new web site aimed at helping non-profits use the latest generation of web tools. I liked the double entendre. Yes, it was social in the sense of being interactive and engaging; but it was also social in these sense of focusing on the needs of society and social groups. That was the same, dual sense of social that had informed the name of our company, Social Signal.
But when the “social web” gave way to “social media”, it didn’t take long to figure out that our double entendre had become a single entendre. The people talking about the marketing value of social media were as likely to talk about “social marketing” as “social media marketing,” oblivious (or indifferent) to the fact that “social marketing” was a long-established term for describing marketing on social issues (disease prevention, issue awareness, behaviour change, etc.).
It’s gotten to the point that the meaning of “social media” today doesn’t relate to issues like social housing, social policy and so forth. It’s social as in social life, social butterfly, social house and social disease. It’s social in the sense of two or more people gathered together and interacting. It’s not social in the sense of recognizing that where two or more people are interacting, society has something to win or lose.
In embracing this thinner meaning of social, social media professionals do more than weaken our society’s already tenuous valuation of social goods. Yes, they impoverish the definition of “social” that’s crucial to galvanizing support for things like social security, or social justice: the extent to which these win public support in part depends on whether the concept of “social” still evokes a meaningful sense of societal commitment, a sense that we are in this together. Turning “social” into a word that evokes Farmville and Facebook status lines erodes that connection.
But there’s more at stake here than a shift in vocabulary. If there’s one field that’s hurt by this weakened definition of “social,” it’s social media itself. As social media professionals, we have the opportunity to define our field and our work as a social project: the project of enabling and inspiring online interactions, information and behaviours that advance society. We have the opportunity to take a massive advance in technology and communications and harness it to the social good; to define social media as interactive and beneficial.
That’s the field I signed up for. And that’s the field that smart venture funds should invest in. Unfortunately, Doerr’s glitz-fest announcement seems to be a lot less about social media’s ability to change things, and a lot more about its ability to sell things.