Facebook. Youtube. MySpace. Twitter. Hulu. Digg. Delicio.us. Wikipedia. You’ve probably heard of at least some of the previous websites, even if you don’t really know what each of them does. More than likely you’ve seen them referenced on a news show or on another website. Depending upon your personal preferences, you likely consider these sites to be essential sites to view on a daily (or hourly) basis or you see them as a complete waste of time. Possibly you see them as both!

But what these sites all have in common is that they are all part of what has become known as Social Media. The term itself first came about after the site LinkedIn, a place where people can make and maintain professional contacts, came on to the scene in 2004. Google Trends, a service that tracks the popularity of terms searched for on Google, saw the term become a common phrase in the second half of 2006. Social Media is a term that means many things to many people. Wikipedia, itself a social media site, defines Social Media as a “media designed to be disseminated through social interaction, created using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques.”

So what does that actually mean? There are two real components here that must be present for something or some site to qualify as Social Media.

Lets tackle the media part first… Social Media is not CNN setting up a webpage. That is content distribution. No matter what traditional media sources such as newspapers, tv channels and radio stations tell you about what they are doing online, don’t believe them when they tell you its social media. If you look at their offerings and you see nothing other than a repackaged version of what they produce through their other media outlets, then it is not social media.

Media in social media is several things that traditional media is not. First, it is malleable in that it can be and regularly does change. Most traditional media is very static such that yesterday’s paper will always be yesterday’s paper, but social media constantly evolves and takes on new forms. Social media is fresh; it is never stale. An even that happens 1 minute after the printing press runs will be pushed into the next edition. Social media has a time lapse that is held back only by how quickly someone can type a sentence or upload a file. Lastly, social media isn’t bound by geography or boundaries. Through the power of Google and other search sites, if the content can be found once, it can be found by anyone.

Now the social aspect… first, it is collaborative. Social media can be thought of as a conversation between two or more people. This can be directed communication, where the creator decides who they wish to see their media, such as posting a link or a status update on Facebook. The other social aspect is a broadcast communication, such as publishing a public blog post or uploading a video to YouTube. Regardless of directed or broadcast, those that see the media always have the ability to respond to the individual who posted the media.

It is at this point that most corporations begin to have hemorrhages, because traditional media has always been about control. Companies want to control the message that reaches consumers and make sure that message is always targeted to the audience. Bad media is rarely a good thing to most companies. Social media, however, stands that rule on its head. Traditional media doesn’t allow for conversation, which means its very difficult for a traditional media message to receive feedback, but social media has built-in methods for bi-directional communication, so feedback is easy. Successful social media must be a two-way street. If a company posts media for people to see, but don’t allow for unfiltered feedback, then it is not social media.

Social media is scary for individuals, too. Identity theft, where someone steals your personal information and uses it to secure money or possessions and charges those purchases to you, has become a large issue in the minds of many people. Let me share a couple points with you that I bring up to those who are scared of this happening to them. First, there are over 1 billion people in the world who regularly use the Internet. A very small percentage of those who do use the internet have enough assets that it is worth the time and effort it would take a criminal to find their information and steal it. Frankly, almost none of us are important enough to steal from. It is significantly easier, and vastly more profitable, for a crook to break into your house and steal your computer than it is for them to find your information online and steal it.

Second, give up the idea that you can protect your privacy. Even if you don’t use the internet, you likely have some type of publicly available information about you somewhere. Do you have a telephone? Has your name ever appeared in the newspaper? Have you ever purchased property? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then a knowledgeable seeker can find you. You cannot run and you cannot hide. You can to a small extent limit what can be found about you, but you cannot stop it. But that really is not such a bad thing. Remember my previous point that most people, even bad people, won’t know to look for you among 1 billion other people. If you were able to remove all of your information from the internet, how would good people, such as your friends and family, find you?

Now that we’ve looked at what social media is and how it impacts people and companies, lets talk about the different types of social media. While all social media concepts are blurry on the edges, in that they blur over into other types, we can make a few generalizations and categorizations.

First are the true media sites, which focus on distribution of content. Youtube, Hulu, Flickr and last.fm are examples of websites with a true media focus. These are places you go to see new content and then comment and or add your own media to the mix. Videos, pictures and music are what dominate this segment.

Second are the true social sites. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Blogger, meetup.com and LinkedIn are examples of this kind of site. This is where you go when you want the interaction to be the driving force in the conversation and the media is something that may be only the spark to get the conversation started.

Third are the collaboration sites, which use social interaction to create media. Wikipedia, Digg, StumbleUpon and Yelp! are all examples of this kind of social media.

The last broad type I will mention are commerce sites that bring together buyers and sellers in a social setting. eBay, Amazon.com, Craigslist and epinions.com are examples of sites that either facilitate a conversation about products and services and even facilitate transactions between buyer and seller.

But is social media really important? Consider that on any given day, 3 million photos are uploaded to Flickr, 700,000 people sign up for Facebook, 5 million new Tweets occur on Twitter and bloggers create 900,000 new blog posts. Yes, friends, the public has spoken and the verdict is that social media is very important.