When The Definitions Are Wrong

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One of the biggest disruptions you may have noticed since the pervasiveness of Social Media is our definition of things.

You can sit back and say that the world has not changed all that much in the past two decades, but you would be putting your head in the proverbial sand. Just the other day someone mentioned to me that not following an individual back on Twitter would be the same as ignoring a customer. In some instances, that is a very true statement. In other instances, it isn’t at all accurate.

How can that be?

It depends on how you define a "customer." If you’re a major airline and people are connecting to you on Twitter and Facebook and you’re not following them back, I can see this individual’s point of view. If you’re more like me, and you’re running a service-based business and use platforms like Twitter to share things you see and connect to certain individuals when time permits, it’s a horse of a different buggy. I love it when Chris Brogan points people to his Blog, You’re Doing It Wrong, because it’s a welcomed reminder that Social Media is not a fixed piece of software. It is (and it should be) many different things to many different people. Some will use it to game the system, while others will use it to change the world.

Don’t get hung up on your definitions.

The trick comes in recognizing that there are many ways to make a point online. Some will do it by broadcasting, while others will do it by spending time to build a fanatical audience. Neither one is wrong. Neither one is right. The problems arise when those with little experience but tremendous popularity speak as if their way of doing things is the bible. Many years ago (long before Twist Image), Andy Nulman hired me to help him launch Airborne Entertainment. Prior to anybody really thinking about it, Andy and his business partner (Garner Bornstein), believed that people would use their mobile devices for much more than just phone calls. They were producing content for mobile devices long before the carriers ever acknowledged the importance of data (and yes, that includes email as well). Along with being ahead of their time, they had a very different definition for what these cell phones could do. To all of us at Airborne Mobile, the cell phone was a personal remote control for your life.

Imagine all of the definitions.

When you see something like Twitter, please don’t just see what other people are doing. Don’t just look at who is popular, and why they’ve become that way. Look at it with a fresh perspective. Create your own definition for it and test your theory. What makes Social Media so incredible is the immediate feedback. You can learn (in short order) if your definition has merit. You’ll be able to know who is interested, why they’re interested and what they’re saying. You’ll be able to engage directly with those people, and this will help you formulate your own definition (which will – in turn – be very different from mine).

Just because it is, it doesn’t mean that it will always be.

I was asked to speak to a small workshop last week of corporate writers on Blogging for business. I was amazed to learn how few of them knew that what really makes a Blog a "Blog" was the RSS component of it. That was part of my core definition (along with a personal journal that is published in a chronological order and enables people to comment). Then, I thought about it, and realized that my definition of a Blog was antiquated. Most websites have RSS now. Some websites use WordPress and look much more like Blogs than a corporate website. Some people would debate whether spaces like The Huffington Post, Mashable and TechCrunch could even be considered a Blog anymore (don’t they look and feel more like a website than anything else?).

Are you holding on to your definitions? Are your definition of things holding you back?


  1. Good points Mitch. The speed of technological change and the speed of user innovation can cause definitions to become outdated quickly. An open mind is far better than a rigid definition.

  2. Thank you for the mental note. I agree with your perspective, though honestly, I’m remiss for lack of attention in the past regarding these issues.
    It is refreshing to be reminded that just because most tweet a certain way, that is the only style to tweet. Whether Facebook, Twitter, or what have you; the rules have changed.
    Create your own definitions and test them against the dynamic new world of Social Media. Everyday is a new learning experience with your blog. Thank you again.

  3. We may be limiting ourselves when we impose our own “definitions” of how things should be versus imagining a new way to do things. I’m constantly reminded of this when I look at my own usage against something we’re doing for a client of Twist Image’s.

  4. I think the whole concept of “definition” is changing dramatically as time goes on. It’s hard to try and define something constantly evolving, it’s like trying to capture water with your hands, something will always slip away.
    Social media itself is a constantly evolving concept and its “definition” and use is just too personal to be given in an objective way.

  5. I don´t think I agree completely. I think we in many ways need to take our work seriously and maintain definitions, because the words define what eg. technologies can do.
    Maybe the public doesn´t need to know all the definitions, but we as professionals do.
    Like in any other business, or science, there needs to be a terminology which makes it possible to communicate about eg. a specific topic. And if we eg. ignore that a podcast is distributed with rss which makes it subscribable eg. in iTunes, we ignore the medium and risk stopping innovation and developing.

  6. Regardless of definition, I have a tough time swallowing:
    Not following an individual back on Twitter would be the same as ignoring a customer.
    Imagine alienating your core customers because you felt the need to respond to every mention on Twitter.
    Don’t get me wrong. I am very much pro-Twitter. But it’s hard for me to justify giving followers the same priority as my paid writing, speaking, and consulting clients.

  7. This is something I say everyday to people; social media is what you make and how you want to use it, it’s not how others are doing it.
    As someone who spends most of his day talking about social media I see a lot of people who are looking for that silver bullet cure for “this is how social media should be done” and “this is the proper way to measure social media”. The problem is that all those posts are right and wrong at the same time. They outline a forumla that works for them specifically, but just because it worked for them doesn’t mean it will work for someone else.
    Social media can be used so many different ways to do so many different things and achieve so many different goals. The best advice I think I give people is to figure out why they’re getting into social media, how they can achieve their goal through the use of social media and how they’re going to actually execute it. Everyone’s answer is going to be different and that’s perfectly fine.
    This is a brand new world with so many possibilities. People should do what they think is right and not what someone else thinks is right. Being true to yourself (or your brand) is the only way you’re really going to get the most out your social media efforts.
    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

  8. I think we do agree (actually ;). My main point is that those definitions are sometimes held a little too close to our hearts and minds, and that many of them keep changing.
    I have to keep reminding myself that Marketing is in flux. Being in flux means constant, minimal and erratic changes. Things we’re not used to or comfortable with. With those changes, so too must change our previously held definitions as well.

  9. Agreed. Especially, if one doesn’t use Twitter as a direct correlation to their business. I love Twitter. I love connecting there and I love the content I discover and the people I meet, but it would not affect me (or my business) if it were all to go away tomorrow.
    That’s part of my world… part of my strategy.

  10. Each Social Media strategy must be unique – especially the good ones. The good ones are tied directly to business objectives (short term and long term), so thinking that there is a catch-all (or that silver bullet) is the beginning or a very long, hard and painful mistake for many companies… oh, it’s expensive and time consuming too.

  11. we really do like to group things, don’t we? Right action, wrong action – outside the box, down the street and around the corner from the box. Never ends.
    My guess is that we do need a certain amount of definition and categorization to make communication possible – but I agree, we get really wrapped up in just how defined everything is (and how firm those definitions are over the long term.)

  12. Interesting thought. I’m not sure I’d have thought about it like a definition as much as a conventional belief that was somewhat limited in scope. Still, all of us do go through this thing where we figure we know something really well and it’ll always be that way, only to figure out, hopefully sooner than later, that there might be other ways of looking at something.
    Continual growth and reflection; it’s hard, but these days it’s also essential.

  13. Good points Mitch. I particularly like the suggestion to think about how to use a media differently, develop your own hypothesis and test it. That’s how innovation happens!

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