Social networking has created a new way for people to connect, and reconnect with old friends and relatives alike. The immense popularity of networks like Facebook, MySpace, and Google+ have made access to these networks easy for everyone from John the high school student to his great grandparents. It seems like virtually everyone is staking their own virtual claim (pun intended) in the world of social media. Does this new medium for interaction have a lasting potential? What will social media look like in five years?
To answer these questions, we should first look at the history of communication over computers. When I was growing up, we had a bulletin board system (BBS) running out of our home. This was a simple setup that allowed users to call our system from their own using the phone line. Connection speeds were considerably slower than they are today, sitting at between 600-2400 baud, which translates to roughly 2.4-9.6 kbit/s. Yes, you read that right. This connection speed was barely enough to transfer simple lines of text, and downloading a low-resolution image took several minutes, rather than less than a second as it does today. These bulletin boards allowed users to post a message to the community and maintain a basic handle with which they could be identified. Only one person could access the board at a time, and this was basically the way people communicated electronically in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Then, along came the Internet. The information superhighway burst on the scene and some of the more popular community-driven services were services like Yahoo! Chat, ICQ, and online forums. AOL was also a very popular service, giving its users their own community tools where they could communicate openly, including AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). Online forums in particular became very popular, and remain so to this very day. A basic profile, easy navigation tools for users, and a series of active discussions made it a great way for the companies to stay in touch with their users and find out about any problems or suggestions that seemed consistent across their online community.
After some time, the concept of Web 2.0 was introduced and sites began to focus on allowing and even encouraging communities to form around their brand. Sites like Friendster, MySpace, and what’s now simply called Delicious came to light, giving users an interactive way to share interesting links, media, and information.
In the shadow of the .com burst, Friendster created a platform with the intention of connecting real-world friends in a new way. The site grew at an incredibly rapid rate, giving birth to the latest trend in social Web-based tools for connecting individuals.
MySpace, which started as a Friendster clone, gave unprecedented control of the overall look and feel of a profile page to the user. What followed was several years of animated backgrounds, crazy text colors, and annoying music that started playing when you first loaded someone’s page. Still, there were some great advantages to MySpace, and it quickly became the dominant contender in the world of what would become social media.
In 2004, a little-known site called The Facebook launched, connecting college students online. This service made it easy to plan parties, discuss important campus activities, and keep up with classmates after they’ve moved on. In time, Facebook opened itself up to a wider user base, and the world’s largest social network was born.
Now, we live in an age where social media is changing the way people across the world communicate. What started as a medium for connecting people you know has quickly become a primary focus in that interaction. Companies like Twitter have taken the basic concept of social communication and abbreviated that contact, making something entirely new as a result. Facebook continues to thrive as the largest network in the world, and new networks seem to be coming out every day.
Some of the latest trends in social media were introduced by Google’s latest social project, Google+. Hangouts give groups of people the ability to have a face-to-face conversation in real-time using video and voice. Facebook has also introduced a 1-1 version of this ability in coordination with Skype, a popular video and VoIP service.
Social media is quickly taking form in a way that allows users to define different kinds of friends, and split them into social circles. This means, instead of sending the same update to the world, or to all of your friends, you can choose to send them to specific individuals. For the moment, this would appear to be where social media is heading.
Five years from now, what will social media look like? Making predictions is a difficult process, especially in the world of technology. Even the biggest experts in the field would be hard-pressed to make any such prediction with any level of certainty. The one thing I can say, and safely so, is that social media isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, it may very well be the primary focus of the Web moving forward.
Think about it: search engines like Google and Bing are beginning to harvest your social connections to give you customized results when you search. We can expect this trend to continue as more and more people begin to adopt and embrace this new medium of communication.
Mobile is also an area where companies are just now beginning to truly grasp its importance. Even today, if you’re a company that does work online and you don’t have some form of a mobile platform for your users, you are missing out on what could be a significant amount of business.
Another trend to keep an eye out for is location-based services. Sure, Foursquare and Gowalla have their limitations, but look out for more and more companies that will begin to take advantage of location-based services. After all, it matters to these companies that you’re at their place, rather than just casually browsing their site. Turning your physical activities into a competitive game (like Foursquare) is a great way to inspire people to visit your place of business.
No matter what happens in the next five years, it’s clear that we’re headed in a more social direction. The idea of anonymously browsing the Web, experiencing one-way communication and media is quickly being pushed to the side to make way for direct engagement, connections, and a seamless combination of virtual and real-world experiences.