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The disputed origins of the term Soacial Media

The disputed origins of the term “social media”

“Social media is so hot right now. Social media.”

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google+…

These juggernauts represent a share of internet traffic between them that currently surpasses ALL OTHER internet traffic for 10 hours out of every single day (between 3pm and 1am EST).

Social Media Traffic

That includes every last one of the more than 1 billion websites currently active on the internet.

Think about that for a second.

Image credit: Warner Bros

Yeah. It’s big.

With numbers like that, it’s little wonder that so many people are so eager to lay claim to having coined the term “social media”

It turns out that this is a topic of much controversy.

And why not?

In terms of “influencer” street cred, there aren’t many cards that one could potentially play that could trump “I coined the term ‘social media'”, are there?

Let’s see if we can figure out the truth…

The disputed origins of the term “social media”

In point of fact, no fewer than 3 prominent internet personalities currently maintain that it was they, and no-one else, who first used the words “social” and “media” together to refer to “websites which allow users to create and share content, or participate in social networking.”

*** Fun fact: The term “coin a phrase” refers to the process of stamping or “coining” metal discs before they are released to the public as legal currency. Much as one does with a new word or phrase which works its way into the public lexicon. ***

The 3 candidates:

Tina Sharkey


CEO of Babycenter.com, iVillage co-founder, former AOL executive, started Sesame Street’s digital internet division.

Her claim:

Sharkey’s iMedia bio contains the following quote:

“…and in 1995, coined the phrase “Social Media” as co-founder and Chief Community Architect of iVillage.com.”

When asked about this quote during an interview in 2010, Ms Sharkey related the following story about a conversation during her time at iVillage:

“I said, ‘Well, it’s not like service media, and it’s not quite informational media — it’s social media!’”

Ms Sharkey also owns the domain socialmedia.com (although the domain was not registered until 1999).

Ted Leonsis


Former Senior Executive at AOL (1994-2006).

Owner of the Washington Capitals (NHL) and The Washington Wizards (NBA), as well as several professional sports stadiums and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.

His claim:

The oldest recorded quote using “social media” in the way it is used today is from Leonsis in 1997, when he was quoted as saying the following about AOL needing to provide users with:

“…social media, places where they can be entertained, communicate, and participate in a social environment.”

Leonsis maintains that the term came from discussions between himself and AOL founder Steve Case while they were developing AOL Instant Messenger.

Darrell Berry

Derrell Berry social media


Australian photographer based in East London, online media pioneer, self proclaimed “photographer/writer/social media researcher & strategist/hacker”.

His claim:

Mr Barry claims that he began using the term “social media” while developing an online media environment called Matisse in Tokyo in 1994.

He wrote a published paper on “Social Media Spaces” in 1995, where he argued for the internet to move further toward becoming a network of users engaging with each other, and further away from being simply an archive of documents.

So, who’s right?

Who knows?

Ted Leonsis probably has the most well documented claim, but he already owns 2 top-tier pro sports franchises, so we are disinclined to give this one to him.

Darrell Berry clearly used those two words together earlier than the other two, but whether he was using them to describe what we recognise as “social media” today is far less clear. Muddying the waters further is the fact that his use of the phrase clearly had little to no influence over its adoption into the common lexicon. This, as discussed earlier, is an essential factor in any attempt to claim to have “coined” anything.

Tina Sharkey’s approach to the issue appears to us to be quite presumptuous. Despite an almost complete lack of evidence to back up her claim, she asserts it with such confidence that it almost sounds completely legitimate. If the only witness at your own trial is yourself, how can any jury take you seriously?

Considering all this, as well as our own biases and prejudices, we at Phrasee are prepared to make a judgement on this case.

The term “social media” was, in fact coined by:


Snoop Dogg



Let the history books record this as an accepted and undisputed fact in perpetuity. And no, we don’t have any evidence, but then, neither does Tina Sharkey.

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Trevor Beers, Senior Language Technician, Phrasee

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