There’s a selective confusion around social media that afflicts some and not others.

This confusion also varies in intensity. For some of the afflicted, it’s intensely strong.

For others, this confusion is just a small worry in the back of the mind — like wondering whether the water was left running before you left for the day.

Specifically, it’s a confusion about the meaning of what it is that people do while using social media, how we measure it, and what words we use to describe it.

Now, there’s obviously confusion about the nature of the relationships being formed in social media.

“Friend” most likely does not describe all of the people in your Facebook network, for example. “Follower” does not describe all of the people receiving your tweets.

But going after that particular layer of confusion is too easy, and not very meaningful. It goes without saying that there’s a difference between a Facebook “friend” and a real friend.

Let’s take the next layer of confusion instead, a layer that is of great concern to marketers: engagement.

There’s incredible confusion around this term, “engagement.” There’s confusion around what it really is, whether it’s valuable, what it means and whether it has any relationship to real-world engagement.

Is social media “engagement” to real engagement what Facebook “friend” is to real friend?

If I know how real engagement affects my business, can I back out what social media “engagement” does for my business?

This is confusion that afflicts selectively, and with varying intensity.

To some, there is no confusion at all. In this group we might have people who believe absolutely that online social “engagement” and engagement are the same thing. If they “like” me in a social media environment, they will like me equivalently in a real-world environment.

For this group, for whom the meaning of social media “engagement” is clearly established, measurements are simple pointers of how to improve. Do more of the things that increase social media “engagement,” and spend as much effort as if it were real-world engagement.

Lacking any confusion, this group can act quickly. They can skip analysis of social measurements, accepting them at face value, and act accordingly.

Within the “no confusion” bucket there is also the opposite angle: There are some who believe there is no relationship at all between social media “engagement” and real-world engagement. This is perhaps a more cynical or hardened view. This group sees no relationship between the measurements provided by social and the health of their own businesses.

For this group, where social media “engagement” has no meaning and can be ignored, the measurements provided by social tools can also be ignored, as they measure nothing of consequence.

Just as high scores in a video game rarely translate to real-world skills, so too social media measures don’t really translate to social benefit, the thinking goes.

Lacking confusion, this group can also act quickly. They can skip analysis of measurement tools and make decisions on whatever other factors they deem important.

And then there are the confused. Those who are not sure of the relationship between social media “engagement” and real-world engagement. They may poke at it and try to figure it out. They may try to ape what they see others (both confused and not confused) doing.

Though many who are confused will remain quiet about it, they may also talk about their confusion. They might ask questions out loud. And that’s where the fun really starts.

The intensity of feeling around social media “engagement” — what it means and how valuable it is — can create even more confusion, as people with varying viewpoints interact online and offline.

Some of this is simply a desire to keep words meaningful, to not allow their true meaning to be drained away for marketing purposes by social measurement schemas. Some people would like to see words like friend or engagement maintain their relationship to what they mean in the real world.

Others are perfectly happy to allow the meaning of friendship or human engagement to be drained away. Perhaps they can continue to hold the distinction between the two in their mind and instantly recognize when discussing “engagement” or engagement. Perhaps they don’t see a difference anyway.

While I myself belong firmly in the group that recognizes a difference between online social “engagement” and real-world engagement, I can see value in both.

I typically ignore the definitions of online “engagement” handed to me by social measurement tools — likes, friending, following. These are not engagement. They hint at the possibility of future engagement and, like an aggressive marketer, assume the sale.

As someone who cares about language and meaning, I’m certainly irritated by this. It’s unfortunate that our observation tools are infiltrated by marketing language that is weighted in favor of those selling us the tools (or at the very least, those attempting to increase our real-world engagement with their tools).

It becomes an irritating discipline to constantly say “people who clicked the like button” instead of “engaged users.” Or “people who might one day see a Tweet” instead of “followers.”

But doing so keeps confusion at bay. Maintaining this irritating discipline becomes necessary to maintaining an understanding of what is actually being measured.

Maintaining this irritating discipline becomes necessary to generating meaning in the numbers that are used to describe real people in the real world trying to get something real accomplished.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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