If Facebook got sovereignty tomorrow, it would be the third most populous country in the world.
Social networking, the seemingly-ubiquitous clique machine that began in the primordial soup of BBSes and has evolved into a cutting-edge platform for celebrities to stick their feet in their mouths, has become one of the most widespread phenomena of the last decade. It’s already revolutionized advertising, customer service, and the news. It’s not going anywhere.
So, the question, then, is: where is it going?
Well, start a Twitter hashtag for #dinformation, check-in to 2050 on Foursquare, and together let’s visualize the social network of the future.
For a baseline of what’s at stake in this tech race, it’s fastest just to look at Facebook, the silverback gorilla of social networking, which has gotten—and maintained—approximately 500 million users since its inception. (This statistic counts individual users, not fan pages; apparently there are only so many things a pickle can be more popular than.)
Facebook’s unparalleled triumph in the world of social networking platforms seems to be largely because it’s been an excellent student. Rare is the social network that has absorbed quite so many features of others’ successes.
From Facebook’s additions over the past years, we know that there are three developing aspects of social media that will be key social networking needs in the future: ease of communication, commercial viability, and software responsiveness to ever-increasing ways to share breaking news, stay in touch with distant friends, and invade one’s own privacy. Each of these is critical to the success of social networking; now it’s just a matter of a future that utilizes them best.
Ease of Communication
Any social network is only as good as the dopamine-response cycle of its users, which means that the success of future social networks will also depend on the ease with which its users can communicate. On some level, this will mean preserving the privacy of person-to-person instant messaging. On another level, it will mean giving users paths of least resistance in responding to other users’ posted content. We’ve already gone from user-logged, typed blog comments to 140-character tweets on mobile-phone keyboards to one-click Facebook likes via auto-verified iPhone app. The next logical step in ease of communication would be to eliminate the need for a handheld interface entirely, and to provide the easiest possible way for people to participate in the network, requiring a minimum of both hassle and time.
With those parameters in mind, we’re thinking that before long there will be a mass-produced social networking tool that’s, say, a micro-display in the lens of a pair of very pricey sunglasses. (Let’s just acknowledge the company that will market this first by calling it the iGlass.) Though voice-control commenting would be the iGlass’s most obvious interface, it would, unfortunately, also eliminate one of the best parts of social networking: being able to do it without attracting undue attention. A more passive body-activated interface would modify functionality, yet still be practical enough for use on such a mobile level; a blink clicks a link, for example, or approval of a post is registered by prolonged eye contact. (Bonus: This will also, by proxy, bring the glad eye back into vogue. So retro!)
Nobody wants to make responsiveness easier for the user than marketers, who have immersed themselves in social networking as a way to monitor trends, engage an often-jaded consumer base, and nip customer problems in the bud. (For example, companies frequently have customer-service reps monitor their Twitter mentions specifically to address complaints before they have a chance to become trending topics.) Many social networks are also taking advantage of marketing partnerships, from Facebook’s ubiquitous ads (notoriously reliant on someone’s profile information for targeting) to more subtle viral-marketing techniques seen on networks such as Twitter and YouTube. One of social media’s newest advertising techniques is embedded barcodes, readable by smartphones, that immediately connect the curious customer with further information and special deals about the advertised products.
Now, for our iGlass, we imagine a natural progression of this customer-driven advertising; with a lingering gaze on an advertisement, the potential buyer would be provided with blink-activated purchase information. And this technology, if developed far enough, could eventually expand to encompass items that have already been sold—to someone else. Imagine it: Never again will you have to wonder where someone got that amazing coat—nanofilaments in the coat itself will be happy to provide you with directions to the nearest retailer.
Of course, non-commercial enterprises could also benefit from this technology, if extensive-enough platforms could be developed and popularized for potential-profit enterprises. Scholars might find it useful to be able to pull up the text of, or purchasing information for, a cited work simply by holding the gaze (this PhD brought to you by Amazon.com?); scientists would be able to upload microscope images to a “social network” of other results, populated by their peers, providing faster indexing and real-time global collaboration. (And, perhaps inevitably, sidebar ads for hand sanitizer.)
Responsiveness of technology to the developing market will be the ultimate key to the future of social media; since not all trends are predictable, the first platform that scratches a previously unknown itch might well corner the market.
Now, concerns about the privacy of users’ online information were already widespread in the social-mediaverse when FourSquare appeared, and its primary function—being able to log in from wherever you were and rack up points against other visitors to the same locale—would seem counterintuitive to notions of online privacy (if not outright dangerous). However, it’s already become so popular that military personnel have had to be ordered not to use it for fear of accidentally revealing military movements. And even more telling? Facebook has adopted a similar technology: The true sign of networking success.
But frankly, an ideal template for the future of software responsiveness is actually already here: Apple’s App Store. The Store itself is a social network of user-generated content that provides both marketing and moneymaking opportunities (a holy trinity of market appeal). Populated by techies for techies, the App Store contains single-click download options for other platforms (Twitter, Tumblr), market-friendly apps (entertainment-blog feeds, Yelp) and even reference guides (sky maps, bird-call encyclopedias).
So, really, all that’s left now is to figure out what to call the cornea-operated version.
Ideally, a social network will become more than a platform as it takes on higher-power functionalities. For example, the ease of use that social networks provide can be used to pass relevant links much faster than traditional news sources, bringing the spotlight to stories that might otherwise go unnoticed, as when Twitter famously broke news of the recent elections (and subsequent riots) in Iran, allowing for on-the-ground reports that gathered international support and allowed Iran’s youth to build their own journalistic narrative.
More than any single technological development, it’s to be hoped that social networks will continue to embody these best aspects of community activism alongside those one-blink IMDB lookups. (Hint: That actor you’ve seen in a dozen movies, Chris Cooper.)
In some ways, it’s a comfort to see the emergence of technology that supports a concept rather than a user; the App Store technology has spread to other smartphone platforms, and the idea of individual, crowd-sourced utilities is the sort of technology that, because of its immediacy and flexibility, could develop smoothly as the years go by, until the next thing you know it’s the future, and social networking is easier than ever before. Right?
(Blink twice for yes.)
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