Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Social Web Futures

The internet and social media have been abuzz for some time now after Jeremiah Owyang, a senior analyst at Forrester Research and all around social media darling, released his analysis of where he believes social media will be going in the next five years. While predictions of the future are generally hard to pin down (something Owyang makes crystal clear), the good folks at Destination CRM encapsulate his five overlapping stages as such:

  1. The era of social relationships: [M]id-1990s, people signed up for online profiles and connected with their friends to share information.
  2. The era of social functionality: As it exists today, social networking ... can support a broader array of what Owyang calls "social interactive applications." However, identities are essentially disconnected silos within individual sites.
  3. The era of social colonization: By late 2009 ... OpenID and Facebook Connect will ... allow individuals to integrate their social connections ... blurring the lines between networks and traditional sites.
  4. The era of social context: In 2010, sites will begin to recognize personal identities and social relationships to deliver customized online experiences. Social networks will become the "base of operation for everyone's online experiences."
  5. The era of social commerce: Brands will serve community interests and grow based on community advocacy as users continue to drive innovation in this direction.

A handy chart has also been making the rounds:

Let us consider some of this for a while.

And while we do, let me share with you an anecdote. At my house, we don't watch a lot of television. Busy lives, a very entertaining child, a preference for reading books and magazines and a healthy dose of online media consumption all equal a thin diet of TV programming. For this reason, we don't have cable. Instead, for years we got by with rabbit ear antennas. The switch to digital meant we needed an analog to digital converter box (yes, our TV is that old), but it also meant we needed an upgrade on our antenna.

To Best Buy I went. First, I purchased the smallest antenna I could find, reasoning that digital signals would be stronger than analog. Not so very much. Our eight strong analog signals covering the networks, PBS, some locals and Univision (best fĂștbol coverage, bar none) were reduced to four stations. Back to the store, a return, a stronger, pricier antenna. Home again, we're up to six stations, but still not NBC or the local PBS.

At this point, I changed tactics. Hopping online, I went to Best Buy's website and began searching antennas. Finding them, I began reading customer reviews. Gleaning tips from these, I Googled the antenna most users seemed to rate highly and I read more reviews.

Armed with information, I returned to the store, bought a roof mounted antenna plus everything I needed to secure it and run a coax line down to the house. In a little over an hour, I installed the much pricier, best antenna the store sold.

Twenty five channels.

What's important, though, is the process. See how many steps I could have cut from this process, how many trips to the store and experiments with the merchandise?

The solution was found through a very rudimentary kind of social web activity. Burned by claims on the antenna's boxes, I trusted perfect strangers' advice over the manufacturer and marketer promises. Now imagine that instead of going online and Googling or going to Best Buy's website, imagine a fully integrated social media experience.

Let's pretend Facebook is still the dominant player five years down the road. You want to buy a new antenna, a lawnmower, a car -- anything. You log in to your account that is a hybridized browser (think Flock at this early stage) and social media portal. Instead of typing what you're doing now, you type, I plan on buying a new television. Anyone have any advice?

The social media platform you're on scours not only the standard destinations like Best Buy for specs and purchasing options, it also scrolls through your online friends' internet accounts searching for what they've ever said about televisions. Have they rated a TV at This futurized Facebook will pull that up. Expand that search out a little. LinkedIn can show you the friends of friends through a web of connections. In the future, your frame of reference can expand outward through friends of friends for anything. Have any of your friends' friends ever rated televisions?

With users opting for one consistent online ID or user persona, all of this data can be collated and delivered. Now instead of relying on dubious advertising claims or the words of strangers, how about the advice of friends, acquaintances and relatives? Who are you more likely to listen to?

Things like this are already taking shape. The iPhone app SnapTell lets you take a picture of the cover of books, CDs, DVDs and tons of other products from anywhere, then searches the web and brings back reviews from Amazon, Goodreads, Wikipedia, Google shopping and so on. Find a book in the store, but thirty bucks seems too steep a price? Pull out your phone, and what do you know? Barnes & Noble has it for $19.95 with five dollar shipping and handling.

In the future, you'll take a picture of something and your contacts will chime in as well. Anyone you know a fan of the author of that thick historical novel? Facebook friends who belong to the fan group will let you know. Does this Xbox game live up to the hype? Your brother-in-law on Twitter doesn't think so. Should I apply for this position? A friend of a friend works there and loves it. Where should you go to dinner? Your niece in chef school has been tearing up the reviews on and she knows the real best sushi place in town.

Again, of course, you have to remember that social media is nothing more than a cataloged, accessible document of word of mouth. You could ask around to find out which game you should buy, which diner you should patronize, which author seems to have lost the knack for solid story telling. But in the future, social media will do the asking around for you. When you want to learn about something, it'll be your friends and followers who will advise you first.

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