Is social media technology?

To many of us this seems like a ridiculous question. We’re certain the answer is an obvious, unequivocal yes. We point to Facebook, Twitter, Yammer, Jive, SocialCast, YouTube, blogs and the like as examples. We refer to what Wikipedia says:

Social media includes web-based and mobile based technologies which are used to turn communication into interactive dialogue among organizations, communities, and individuals. Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein define social media as "a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content."

It’s an open and shut case, right?

Not so fast, say some of today’s most sought after social media thought leaders. The idea of Social Media being technology is a myth some of them argue.

Our Social Fix

“Social media is biology and consumer behavior,” says Curtis Hougland, the CEO of the PR firm Attention. He made his case before an elite audience at Wired Magazine’s Disruptive by Design Conference held in New York City earlier this year. “We never elevate the technological channel over the consumer behavior which is what social is all about,” he explains.

Hougland claims that social media is changing our brains, that we get a hit of dopamine each time we text, email or tweet. “It’s the same process an addict goes through,” he says, “without this, we feel lonely."

While we might be tempted to dismiss Hougland’s claims as extremist or even rubbish, it’s worth noting that he makes his living advising companies such as A&E, Clearwire, Consumer Reports, The Daily Beast, IBM, The Sundance Channel and the like on social media marketing. His success is dependent on how well he helps his clients score with social media rather than beating the drum for abstinence.

Not only that, but if we’re honest, most of us know someone (maybe it’s even ourselves) who feels miserable, and maybe even invisible, if our social media channels aren’t chiming.

Look at Me

No one may understand this better than Web 2.0 marketing expert Chris Brogan, co- author of NY Times and Wall Street Journal top selling books, “Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust” (written with Julien Smith) and "Social Media 101: Tactics and Tips to Develop Your Business Online."

When Brogan steps out on stage before audiences of Web 2.0 enthusiasts, he welcomes them with a single word, “Sawubona.” He explains that it’s a Zulu (Brogan is not Zulu) greeting that translates to: “I see you.” I recognize that you are there.

“It’s a powerful want for a lot of us, to be seen, to be heard,” says Brogan, and social media is a great way to meet that need.

And although he doesn’t go right out and call social media biology, Brogan, whose blog is #4 in AdAge’s 150, does talk about his own yearning for attention:

I create (blog) so much material because I have lots of ideas and I want to share them. I want to share them because I love feedback. I crave feedback. And at a very base level, I just want to be “seen.” It can also be another kind of addiction. Addiction to feedback hampers a lot of other valuable pursuits. How often do you rush to see if anyone’s commented on your Facebook status or retweeted your witty tweet? How many times do you check on your blog to see whether you need to answer a comment? Ask yourself quite honestly what purpose this activity serves.

(Note: This post of Brogan’s received 1,113 tweets -- how’s that for attention?)

It’s interesting to note that both Hougland and Brogan, who make their livings through providing social media services and expertise, talk more about biology, psychology and behavior (and addiction) rather than technology.

In other words, it’s more about what a tweet says, or how a blog post or Facebook update makes you, or others, feel than the technology that contains or carries the message. Being personal is what Social is all about.

This gives rise to an important question as to how Social is used in business as opposed to marketing to consumers. Can it be about biology, psychology and behavior? Can we make the other party want to engage and make doing so, on a personal level, safe?

At the end of the day, what we’re trying to win when we use Social in business is the same thing that consumer marketers want, the gift of another’s attention. And it’s not technology that will win that.

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading this piece by Virginia Backaitis: