The road ahead for social media

As Facebook gets ready to make a splash on Wall Street here's a look at the five key trends that could well dictate the future of the social media phenomenon.

People are trading their privacy for influence! This irreversible global trend is shaping a communication battleground that will impact on every aspect of our future.

The concept of relinquishing privacy is a scary proposition for many people, generally in loose correlation to their age. Similarly the idea of a profound change in societal influence is generating resistance and fear in traditional power centres and institutional mediators of meaning. Governments, corporations, media empires and a host of heritage institutions and their practices will change dramatically as contemporary forces shift the nature of influence.

Early attempts at legislation, such as the overbearing Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the USA and the poorly conceived internet filter in Australia, both temporarily defeated, are only the first battles in what will be a very long war. There will be winners and losers, there will be casualties and collateral damage, and anyone who thinks that they will be unaffected is going to find the battle for meaning and influence will come to visit them sooner or later.

Of course no one knows what the future holds for social media, however, if we follow emerging trends we can extrapolate their path into interesting predictions. I believe that four key trends are shaping the future of social media, and you can make up your own mind as to the suitability of a war metaphor. The fifth and opaque trend is that of pure invention. What the next ‘bright spark’ invents is my perfect preparation to answer ‘why I failed to predict the future accurately’, but here goes …

The arms race

Research giant Gartner places the adoption of technology on a ‘hype cycle’. A quick ‘Google’ of this term will show you a model that makes a great deal of sense when considering the ‘hype’ that surrounds Social Media. In essence, once momentum starts there is a crazed period of activity, followed by a similar crash (once everyone realizes Social Media isn’t the best thing since sliced bread), then a gradual upward trend based on true utility and value generation.

At present new ‘Social Media Platforms’ appear from nowhere almost every day in an ‘arms race’ of ‘me-too’ involvement. There are more platforms than there are audiences or strategies. As a result ‘Listening Post’ solutions that monitor online traffic are emerging to solve the problem. Their role is similar to search engine sorting of content that proliferates on the Internet, except that instead of finding content, they are finding people and conversations.

The future of social media includes analytics tools and social search that are for now suffering from their own ‘hype cycle’. There are hundreds of these monitoring and analysis tools, many with names that include the word ‘buzz’ as almost an admission of the ‘hype’ contained within the social media arms race. You can however extract value from them right now!

Taking sides

Another curve for the statistically inclined is the adoption curve. This model categorises the stages when customers enter the market and start ‘adopting’ a trend or technology and what drives their engagement. ‘Early Adopters’ are today looking at Pinterest, Google (said as ‘Plus’) and waiting to queue for the Apple iPhone 5. The ‘Early Majority’ are on Facebook and Twitter and have had their smart-phones for long enough to be deleting apps instead of adding them. The ‘laggards’ are buying flat-screen TVs and thinking about the Internet for at least their banking and thanking the gods that they missed IE6 and Vista (whatever they were).

The arms race needs an army and in Australia alone, more than 10-million accounts (most of which are people) are on Facebook, 3-million on each of Twitter and LinkedIn and just by stating these numbers, this piece is immediately out of date. When someone like Kevin Bartlett (aging AFL footballer - @KevinBartlett29) enters Twitter, you know the laggards are arriving (sorry Kevin).

One outcome of this trend is the need to control multiple content channels and the arrival of tools that help individuals manage their personal brand and collection of social accounts. In the enterprise, similar tools for managing data around individuals are emerging that address the same array of social media channels. Generally known as Social CRM (Customer Resource Management), these tools are embryonic (despite their claims as part of the ‘hype cycle’), because the environment underneath them is still changing too rapidly for standardisation and feature maturity. In the future however, the aggregation of data in a centralised location will be critical for agile and competitive business engagement with customers, prospects and within broader communication channels. Again, value can be gained from these tools already.

Rationalisation and commercialisation: the phoney war

Facebook, the poster child for Social Media is listing! The IPO will add a billion dollars to Bono’s bank account (yes U2’s Bono owns one-per cent via ‘Elevation Partners’ of course) and make founder Mark Zuckerberg one of the world’s richest men. Readying itself for the listing, Facebook just acquired upstart Instagram for one billion dollars in petty cash. Not to be outdone, LinkedIn bought SlideShare for $118 million and earlier this year online CRM SalesForce paid $326 million for the leading Social Media analytics platform, Radian 6.

Sound like the ‘tech-wreck’ of a decade ago all over again? It is worth remembering that very few social media platforms are profitable with Facebook and Twitter entering the black in 2009 (LinkedIn in 2006). YouTube took forever to stop burning cash and almost every other platform is hoping for an exit to a major player. Search and advertising will drive most of the upcomings, however other players in analytics, web applications, and storage are entering the fray. The ‘alliances’ are being created in front of our eyes as lines are drawn between the back-end aggregators (search, data, and analytics) and front-end utility (content, entertainment and audience aggregators).

At some point new technologies can no longer command seed funding and have to live by commercial drivers – this means modifying popular ‘market share’ growth strategies in favour of functionality that makes money. Those dirty commercial imperatives will force Facebook, with its $100 billion balance sheet, into a more commercial focus. Facebook will shift to a singular focus on profit. Any ‘market share’ or ‘technical innovation’ exit strategy, available to younger technologies, will be forever off the table as no one else will be able to afford to buy it.

The war for control

No one lets go of power easily. The social media future is about more than who owns the assets, content and audiences. There are major changes that are already impacting government and traditional repositories of power and our historical mediators of meaning.

Let’s look at a single issue – how online transformation is about a reduced role for the ‘middle-man’. Online shopping connected buyers more directly with sellers. Email distributed written messages without the need for physical post. Social media connects content authors with content consumers without the need for third-person mediation or aggregation (impacting traditional broadcasting, advertising, media and governance models).

In the enlightened world, we are (generally) proud of our instruments of democracy and the separation of powers that provide protection from corruption. Put simply, the government enacts laws, the judiciary interprets them, and the police enforce them. The press are given freedoms to expose corruption and transfer meaning between the people and these instruments of power. Social media collapses this model.

While social media avails certain elements of society with a means for anti-social and malevolent behaviour, it is also a pathway to the removal of important instruments that protect from corruption, poor government, self-serving censorship and structural propaganda.

Perhaps the most controversial prediction is that the battle for Government control, business advantage, media relevance, freedom of speech and assembly, and the full reassessment of the rights and responsibilities of the people in an online world is only just beginning. Social Media will be the ‘battleground’ for this transformation, and it will be a long war.

Picturing the future

In essence the global trend to trade ‘privacy for influence’ is why social media will change our world. As Denis Pelli and Charles Bigelow identify in their ‘writing revolution’ research, the rate of human ‘authorship’ has grown ten-fold per century for each of the last six centuries. The rate of ‘social authorship’, however,  has grown ten-fold per year for each of the past nine years … a 100-times greater rate of growth in human authorial influence.

We are transitioning from a modern society that is largely defined by almost universal literacy (content consumption) to a future society that will be largely defined by almost universal authorship. Everyone is becoming a published participant in the construction of meaning and the young are trading privacy for influence to author the future.

David Warwick is director of services at BWired in Melbourne and consults to leading brands on their online communications strategy and implementation. 

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