Social Media Wheel
Social Media Trends
Did anyone predict the meteoric rise of Facebook? Who guessed that MySpace would be totally eclipsed? How many people dismissed Twitter as pointless? In the field of social media it's easy to be wise with the benefit of hindisight. If you could predict which social media platforms will be successful in 5 years time then you could make yourself very wealthy.
It may not be possible to predict with any certainty the future of Facebook or Twitter or any other social media platforms. However it should be possible to look at social media trends, technology trends and how the younger generations view social media and make some informed observations.
In this article, I will set out why I believe the days of Facebook, Twitter and similar "top-down" platforms are numbered. If I'm right, Facebook's recent $100 Billion valuation could be on the high side!
What is Social Media?
In order to understand the future of social media, it would help to define it as precisely as possible. There are so many different formats (see the wheel above) but what are the common characteristics of social media? Social media allows immediate communication and interaction between individuals. It allows the publication and sharing of content. Social media is, almost without exception, free and available to anyone with access to a web or mobile connection. Social media allows the grouping of individuals, organizations and content.
Benefits of Social Media
The potential impact of social media cannot be overstated. For the fast time in history we have a free, instantaneous and universally available means of communication and interaction. It has often been used for relatively trivial purposes but has certainly enabled people to stay in touch, reunite with old friends and find new friends. It has also enabled organizations to interact with individuals and for individuals to hold organizations to account.
Increasingly individuals are using social media to get organized and political. This is not necessarily for good or noble aims. For example, the UK riots seen in the Summer of 2011 were partly planned and coordinated using Blackberry's private instant messaging system. On a more positive note, at the height of the phone hacking scandal, News International closed down the News of the World newspaper after Mumsnet (UK based social networking platform for Mothers) organized boycotts of any companies planning to take out advertising in the paper.
Perhaps history will say that the most significant impact of social media was the preservation and promotion of democracy. Could the Arab Spring revolution have taken place without social media? Once people have full access to the power and influence that social media enables it's hard to envisage that non-democratic governments can survive. On the other hand "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance". I believe that social media users will never allow their ability to communicate and interact to be compromised.
The web's inventor Tim Berners-Lee said, "A related danger is that one social-networking site gets so big that it becomes a monopoly, which tends to limit innovation. As has been the case since the Web began, continued grassroots innovation may be the best check and balance against any one company or government that tries to undermine universality."
Social Media Policy and Privacy
Currently social media policy and privacy terms are determined by the owners (certainly not the members) of social media platforms. In the case of Facebook this effectively means that Mark Zuckerberg has almost unfettered power. It's in his interests (see Social Media Business- Advertising and Marketing, below) for Facebook members to have limited control of their privacy and data. Mark Z gets to determine members' exposure to advertising messages and spam. If they don't like it, their only real option is to leave.
The Facebook model allows one individual and some shareholders to use the personal profiles and content of a billion members for their own financial gain. It is somewhat ironic that this is happening on a social network platform that allows individuals to interact and get organized and has been used to help overthrow totalitarian regimes.
Social Media, Big Business, Advertising and Marketing
The typical social media model provides free access and use (some such as LinkedIn may charge to upgrade to premium membership) and the main source of revenue is advertising. You can imagine that if you maintain a full Facebook profile this information can be used to present you with precisely targeted adverts. Internet users are increasingly sophisticated and resistant to, and even resentful of, such advertising messages. The recent Google Panda updates have made mainstream news and the general public is more aware about internet advertising methods. The younger generation are sophisticated users and tuned-in to how such models work.
How long will we tolerate social media that is contaminated with advertising messages and spam?
The Future of Social Media
We have seen the usefulness and potential power of social media. We have seen how social media is dominated by a relatively few entrepreneurs and shareholders. We have seen that the structure of social media platforms is top-down and that all the financial benefits flow to the top. We have seen that social media users are increasingly savvy and demanding.
In my view authoritarian, top-down social media is a contradiction in terms. The only way to ensure that social media remains free, accessible to all, a force for good and a protector of freedom is for social media platforms themselves to be democratic, open and transparent. As Tim Berners-Lee said this is most likely to be achieved through grass-roots innovation.
A social media revolution is required. Facebook members could organize and depose Mark Zuckerberg. The man himself could see the writing on the wall and gracefully relinquish power. Back in the real world, I think its more likely that new social media platforms that are owned by their members will rise up and wrestle power from the old guard.