The semantics of Silicon Valley Capitalism are precise, measured, and designed to undermine preexisting definitions of the things such capitalists seek to exploit. It is no coincidence that digital connections are often called “friends,” even though the terms “friend” and “Facebook friend” have very different meanings. And then there is “social,” a Silicon Valley shorthand term for “sharing digital information” that bears little resemblance to the word “social” as we’ve traditionally used it. From “Living Social” to “making music social,” “social media” companies use friendly old words to spin new modes of interaction into concepts more comfortable and familiar. It is easier to swallow massive changes to interpersonal norms, expectations, and behaviors when such shifts are repackaged and presented as the delightful idea of being “social” with “friends.”

But is this “social” so social? Yes and no and not quite. To elaborate, we propose a distinction: “Social” versus “social,” in which the capital-S “Social” refers not to the conventional notion of social but specifically to Silicon-Valley-Social. The point is, simply, that when Silicon Valley entrepreneurs say “social,” they mean only a specific slice of human sociality.

To be clear, we are not arguing that social only takes place offline while Social happens online—because we are not digital dualists. What we are arguing is that we need to make a conceptual and semantic distinction between the broader meaning of “social” (as it applies to both on- and offline) and what Silicon Valley entrepreneurs mean when they say “Social” (which happens primarily, though not exclusively, through social media).

First, what do we mean by the traditional meaning of “social”? The landscape of social is vast and broad, far beyond the scope of this post—but this is precisely our point. Somewhat ironically, “small-s social” is huge. In adjective form, “social” means simply

  • of or relating to society and its organization;
  • of or relating to rank and status in society;
  • needing companionship and therefore best suited to living in communities; or
  • relating to or designed for activities in which people meet each other for pleasure.

Boiled down, “social” pertains to pretty much anything that transpires between two or more people (directly or indirectly; on- or offline). Given that we are indeed social creatures, and that much of what we conceptualize as personal and individual is actually shaped and influenced by the societies in which we live (for example, our taste preferences, emotions, etc), “social” pertains to nearly every component of our day-to-day lives.

Yet startup scenesters, digital media moguls, and Internet Cool Kids (to name just a few) use the word “social” to reference a much more specific portion of human sociality. That small piece is hardly interchangeable with the whole of human interaction, however, and such mislabeling threatens to obscure the wider range of interactions that fall outside that subset’s narrow scope.

“Social” (capital-S) is what Silicon Valley Capitalists usually mean when they use the term “social”: interactions that are measurable, trackable, quantifiable, and above all exploitable. Whereas much (but not all) of social is nebulous and difficult to force into databases, Social can be captured and more effortlessly put to work. Thus, behavior Social to the degree that it is easily databaseable.

Social (capital-S) is the fuel of Web 2.0, the so-called “participatory web” (as if ‘the web’ hasn’t always been participatory); it is a critical source of free labor, on which most social media business models depend. When so-called ‘friends’ converse or share content through social media platforms, they support a system that incentivizes other users to log in and participate as well. Each reciprocated and initiated piece of interaction prompts a user’s ‘friends’ to log in and respond, and thereby funnels free labor into an ever-expanding and potentially self-perpetuating supply of value-adding, business-sustaining new content. Critically, these Social interactions also generate the digital traces that make up social media’s Big Data, which many argue is the real product that social media companies produce.

To illustrate the relationship between social and Social, first think of a watershed: water falls from the sky, runs down the side of a mountain, makes its way to a river, and eventually drains to the ocean, where more water is evaporating and returning to the clouds. Consider the whole of this water system akin to social. Now zoom in on the river alone, and imagine that river diverted & dammed to build a hydroelectric plant: this is akin to Social. Social (capital-S) aims to reshape sociality in ways that direct as much interaction as possible through the specific channels of digital media, in order to harness that interaction for commercial purposes. (Of course, the degree to which this results in actual profit varies widely.)

Equating Social with social is like equating that hydroelectric dam with the whole of the watershed in which it is situated. Consider, for example, Alexis Madrigal’s (@alexismadrigal) recent piece on so-called “dark social,” the “vast trove of social traffic [that] is essentially invisible to most analytics programs.” Especially given the pejorative connotations of “dark,” labeling untrackable digital interactions as “dark social” only makes sense through a Social framework. When we consider the realm of social, it’s unremarkable that people might interact with each other away from the prying eyes of cookies and modified links; after all, most social interaction escapes direct digital observation and databaseification. “Dark social” is menacing to the Social, because “dark social” threatens to let interaction escape through channels that do not turn social media turbines.

Silicon Valley Capitalists would love to remold sociality around the logic of Social, in order to reroute as much social interaction as possible through trackable digital channels. To an extent, they’re already succeeding. Digital dualists may claim that only offline things are “real,” but young people seeking housemates from pools of strangers (for instance) have started to demand Facebook profiles as proof that applicants are “real.” For these master tenants, mere email correspondence no longer suffices; only the tracked, quantifiable, observable artifacts of candidate housemates’ lives are acceptable proof of personhood.

It is a mistake, however, to think either that you can separate Social from social or that Social is interchangeable with social. Without social there simply is no Social. Said differently, all Social is social, but not all social is Social. [Easy!]

In future posts we hope to outline more specific critiques of Social, but first we need this social versus Social vocabulary. We need to stop conflating social and Social. Silicon Valley Capitalists have incentive to pretend that they are dealing in social (and indeed they are), but let’s remember that they are promoting a very specific kind of sociality. When Facebook says “social,” what they usually mean is “Social”: that which can be easily quantified, that which can be made to fit within the rows and columns of a spreadsheet, that which success and failure can be measured against, and that which can be sold for cold hard cash.

Whitney Erin Boesel and Nathan Jurgenson are simultaneously social and Social on Twitter. You can track them by following @phenatypical and @nathanjurgenson.

Hoover Dam postcard image from
Bridge construction at Hoover Dam photo from