If you’ve ever found yourself pondering the question “what is social media?”, you may have also wondered who first coined the term. Well, the term ‘Social Media’ is very much the buzz phrase of a generation: it is used millions of times a day, generates nearly 1.5 billion hits on Google, and has completely altered the way that we market products, communicate, and share our experiences…
The rise of brands such as Facebook and Twitter has taken social media to heady new heights that nobody could have possibly conceived at its inception. But who coined the term ‘Social Media’ first? This is a question that is hotly contested and there are a number of people who lay claim to being the first – meaning that nobody is completely sure.
A former executive at AOL believes that she coined the phrase first. Tina Sharkey is on record as stating that she created it when a new phrase was required for describing iVillage, whom she also worked for. However, the URL socialmedia.com, which is registered to Sharkey, first appeared in 1999 making it a late contender by all accounts.
In 1997, Ted Leonsis, was discussing the need to offer a platform through which users can communicate and be entertained online. He claims that the phrase almost certainly came out of AOL in the 1990s whilst he and other executives were beginning to brainstorm ideas, one of which being AOL Instant Messenger.
Going back even further to 1994, we find Darrell Berry who claims to have coined the term whilst he was developing Matisse, an online media environment. In 1995, he wrote an article about ‘social media spaces’ and how the internet, if it were to survive, would need to grow from being just simply a selection of pages into a space within which users could interact and communicate with one another. Berry points out that since the web was lacking in development, unlike nowadays, it is unlikely that he would have heard the phrase elsewhere before using it in his own work. It is a fair point but it would be nearly a decade until social media was really coming into its own online.
Another contestant is the technology expert, Chris Shipley, who many believe coined the phrase long ago. However, she herself states that she merely popularised the term although she was unaware of the phrase being used prior to then.
In short, the term ‘social media’ and its origins will perhaps never be known for certain. It is understandable why it is such a point of discussion though since it is one of the most important phrases used in the world today. Forbes magazine reported that Tina Sharkey has said that “Successful memes have many mothers, and I’m happy to simply be one of them here.”
Those are true words indeed and perhaps this leads us to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter who, specifically, coined the phrase since social media, by its very nature, is designed to be the combined efforts of many different people – all of whom bring something new and interesting to the fore so that the idea can evolve and grow.
Perhaps we will never know who first coined the term “social media”, and maybe that’s fine. The internet is an iterative beast where the ideas of one are built upon by the many. It seems fitting, then, that the term ‘Social Media’ has a convoluted and interactional backstory.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in 2013. It has since been updated to add references and links in 2023.