The highest and best uses of social media are not for business. The are intensely personal. This is never more clear than during moments of tragedy.
A few days ago, I awoke from a nap to find a breaking news banner across the lower third of my TV screen, and a troubled anchor saying Apple had just announced Steve Jobs' death. Although I expected Jobs to die some day, since he had stepped down from Apple six weeks ago to fight his cancer, I still felt crushed by the news, and full of a sadness that needed a place to go.
Unlike the days of Kennedy's assassination or 9/11, at this important historical moment I immediately turned OFF the television, and fired up my iPad, where I toggled back and forth between Google+ and Twitter, trying to absorb and share this news with thousands of others who were saying everything from R.I.P. to long reminiscences about personal encounters with Jobs or with his inventions.
For the people in these channels, it wasn't about the facts. We already knew the only important one. He died. It was about each other. It was about sharing memories and links -- to the Stanford Commencement address, to the Smithsonian oral history interview, to old ads for the Macintosh. Each person offered his or her contribution to a larger story, the story of how one man changed a century.
I knew my friends would be there -- on Twitter, on Google + -- supporting each other with these stories. While the TV anchor would talk AT me, my social media friends were talking TO me. We were partaking of a sad experience in the presence of one another. Rather than being repetitive, like TV coverage, the social media channel coverage seemed additive.
Seeking even more in the way of sharing, I turned to TWIT.tv, Leo laPorte's network of tech news. Intensely social, TWIT produces TV and audio over the internet, and engages with an active chat room whenever it is on the air. The chat room is an essential and respected part of every program. Leo, who usually goes off the air at about the time Apple made its announcement, ran more than two hours of interviews, reminiscences, and videos, aided by Kevin Marks, Tom Merritt, Jeff Jarvis, and other I have come to see as companion's on life's journey through their social sharing. I think he finally went off around 8 PM, just when the night show, a tech call-in, began. And the sharing went on.
This is a long, anecdotal way to say that we need a more dignified term than "social media" for this new phenomenon that has pulled us together during the past decade. I'm going to suggest that we begin to draw the distinction between "declaratory" media, which tells us something and speaks AT us, and "participatory" media, that which helps us speak to each other and deal with experience as a group.
I think there's a place for each. Declamatory media gives us the outline of the facts. Steve Jobs is dead.
But then something has to invest those facts with meaning. And that's the job of participatory media.