Sunday, May 11, 2008
Social Media: Where have we been, where are we going?
I've always enjoyed studying history and seeing how events unfolded, as well as the telltale signs that told us what was coming next. Of course in hindsight, we can see how certain forces were at work to create the future, but rarely can we see and understand the significance of the events as they are happening. As with anything else, it's the same with the varying social media tools that have risen to, and sometimes fallen from, grace.
I've been actively using social media since 2005 when started writing for a then new blog called Beyond Madison Avenue. Here's the tools that have caught fire since that time, and where I see them headed:
2005 - What was hot? Blogs and MySpace. Both blogs and MySpace had been slowly but surely building steam for a few years prior, but I think reached their tipping points due to media coverage of certain events. For blogs, I think that Dell Hell and their coverage of the Tsunamis garnered much mainstream media attention. For MySpace, News Corp purchasing the social networking site for $580 million was a huge news story, and gave the socnet's member base another kick in the pants.
Are they still hot now? Yes but I think both blogs and MySpace have cooled a bit, and will continue to moving forward. Blogs now have competing formats such as microblogging sites (Twitter, Pownce), as well as socnets. I think in 2005, blogs were the big fish in a small social media pond. By now, that pond has grown several times in size, and blogs are a bit smaller than they were. There's now many options for creating and sharing content online. But blogs definitely have their place in the social media space, and I don't see that changing any time soon.
As for MySpace, I think it's gone from being a 'one-size-fits-all' socnet, to seeing more specialized competitors such as Hi5 and BlackPlanet stealing some of its members. I think this will continue, but I also think that MySpace has a very established and 'general' user base that will probably stick with the service. I think MySpace is aimed at the widest market, and will continue to appeal to that group.
2006 - What was hot? YouTube. It was really a great idea waiting to happen, a site that lets you view videos. And a TON of videos, by mid 2006, the site was claiming that 100 million videos were being viewed every day (which of course was a big story with the MSM). And of course when Google bought YouTube for 1.6 million in late 2006 (a story broken by a blog, Tech Crunch), that just brought even more attention to the site.
Is YouTube still hot? Yes but that's a bit surprising to me. I think that YouTube's competitors had a window of opportunity to educate people on the video-creation process, and to make it easier. As late as last year I was hearing from people active in social media that they had no idea how to create a video and get it on YouTube. But I think the Flip Camera's rise in popularity is in great part due to its ability to upload newly created videos straight to YouTube. YouTube just has such a dominant place in the video-sharing realm and is so firmly entrenched with the masses that competitors offering better quality and features (Viddler), can't really compete at this point.
2007 - What was hot? Facebook. Like MySpace, Facebook's user base had been expanding rapidly already. I think the blogosphere really jumped on Facebook hard in 2007, helping to shine a spotlight on the social networking site. The site's core audience is a bit different from MySpace's, being a hit with primarily college students.
Is Facebook still hot? - Yes and no. Facebook's Beacon program in particular has been a big turnoff to many of the bloggers that jumped on board last year. The site seems to be losing popularity, but it's still firmly entrenched with MySpace as one of the Top 2 socnets. But I don't think that Facebook will lose as many members to specialized competitors like MySpace will.
2008 - What is hot? Twitter and LinkedIn. Both sites had been growing modestly but steadily up until around this time last year when both sites began to take off. Twitter's spurt was mainly due to a very smart sponsorship at last year's SXSW, and the site has been expanding its base ever since. And I would be willing to bet that much of LinkedIn's growth can be tied back to hiring Mario Sundar as its Community Evangelist. Since that time, LinkedIn has started blogging, and has placed a priority on adding social elements to the service as well as to better explaining the capabilities of site. As a result, it's morphed into more or less the 'social network for business professionals'.
Will they be hot moving forward? I think so. Twitter has no real or even potential competition at this point in the microblogging space. And Twitter is beginning to expand beyond the early adopters and techsters that have pushed its popularity to this point. Twitter, while it does have a bit of a learning curve, is simple enough to start using for most people. Utility and ease of use are what drives a site/tool to cross over and have mainstream appeal. Twitter's crossover into the mainstream might not come this year, but I think it will eventually.
As for LinkedIn, it's showing no signs of slowing down. I think that many people last year were favoring Facebook as a business networking tool over LinkedIn. But as Facebook continues to fall out of favor with the blogosphere, many are turning to LinkedIn as a networking tool. Ironically, Twitter is also showing great promise for networking, and could be a bit of a threat to LinkedIn down the road as an avenue for online networking.
What sites/technologies will be hot in 2009 and beyond? To me, trying to figure out this question is the fun part. And I think it comes with a big caveat; many people that predict that such and such site will be the 'next big thing', are confusing being big with early adopters, with being big with the mainstream. For example, Friendfeed shows great potential to be super-hot with early adopters, but you can all but forget it ever having mainstream appeal. Friendfeed is working now for early adopters because so many of us are active on multiple sites and with multiple tools. The mainstream isn't.
As for what's next, I'll again go back to the utility and ease of use. I think that podcasting, for example, offers great utility, but the creation/editing process has always been difficult and time-consuming. And by now why would a newbie worry about podcasting, when they can create videos via Qik and instantly stream them to the web? I think if the creation process had been easy for podcasts from the get-go, that podcasting would be firmly entrenched as a widely used social tool now.
One thing that I really think drives social media, is the ability it gives us to connect with each other. I think that moving forward, the focus will turn to doing this on a local level. For example, a tool that takes the locations of your Twitter friends and super-imposes them on a street map to show you who is nearby. Or a mashup that does the same thing with the locations provided by Brightkite users. I think as Twitter grows in popularity, you will see more and more people accessing it on the go with cellphones, and this growth will help drive the possibility of more localized socializing.
All of these social media tools have risen to popularity because they make it easy for people to create and share content. Which leads to these amazing connections. Any social tool and/or site that reaches mainstream appeal in the future will do so because it excels at facilitating connections that lead to relationships.
Social Media pic via Flickr user Jeff Milner, BS08 shot via Flickr user Matt Dickman
Tags:The Viral Garden, Marketing