The Opinion Engine 2.0:
Your thoughts on where social media is heading (I keep asking you this).

Frozen Impression

Question asked by @kariebookish via Twitter.

Hello everyone. This Ignite talk is going to be about the future of social media.

Sorry, um, ah, I'll waiting for the first slide.


The short answer is, I don’t know.

Having been thinking around the subject for days, whole bit of speech which you’ll never hear, trying to develop a satisfactory answer, I’ve decided that I simply can’t.

The reasons are relatively simple.

For one thing, social media is one of those concepts or subjects which lacks a clear definition.

We clearly mean Twitter and Facebook and before that myspace, Bebo and Friends Reunited. But do we mean The Well bulletin boards in San Francisco during the 1980s? What about Empire Magazine’s comment sections in 1995 which was my first experience? What about Metafilter, or Yahoo! Groups, ICQ or Chatylist all of which I’ve used since?

Tom Standage’s book The Victorian Internet shows, social media began even earlier than that with the telegraph, with marriages even being conducted over morse code.

And what of smoke signals? Don’t they also count?

Of course they do. A glance at the Wikipedia, itself a form of social media, demonstrates that the definition is so loose as to include anything on-line that isn’t a static web page and even then arguably that’s a form of social media because it’s about communicating.

But also, unlike so many other things, it’s impossible to really forecast exactly what new bit of software or platform might develop to improve on what we have now just as when we all thought email was a panacea and little realised that however instantaneous that seemed there’d something even quicker.

Incidentally, um, next slide, email’s gone soon, I suspect. There are plenty of mailshots from companies, but usually that’s because those websites don’t have an RSS feed or their Facebook has a high noise ratio, posting the same topic six times a day.

In the future there will be new platforms, and social media applications will become even further integrated into software and hardware, but it genuinely feels as though we’ve reached a plateau in development terms, with Twitter and Facebook straddling simpler and more complex tastes.

Except it felt like that five years ago when blogging was everything.

In which case we have look at this question from an application perspective. How will we use social media in the future?

At 13:57 on the 1st December 2011, @thejimsmith tweeted: “Oh! People who think twitter is for conversation rather than screaming into the void. Bless.” Which is true.

Sometimes I’ll be tweeting for hours without a single reply hoping that whatever I’ve said is of such scintillating validity it requires no comment but knowing it’s simply that I’m creating just a lot of noise in someone’s follower list.

But the day before, I had a very long, useful conversation with @doublenagativeL about the Liverpool Biennial, one of hundreds across the years since I’ve been using Twitter, often with people who are near or total strangers.

The tone has been different every time, and there’s always the block button if I want to cut someone off.

There’ll be much more of both. Much more.

I’ve also stopped using the telephone socially too. Some recent chaos meant I had to have long conversations with friends and I was surprised at how difficult it was to anticipate when the next person was ready to speak, outside of the professional environment where I use the phone all of the time and the structures are more rigid.

Customer service is still in its infancy on social media but I could imagine it becoming more crucial. Increasingly, problems which I’ve not been able to resolve through normal channels have been easily dealt with through the Twitter account of the relevant company, M&S agreeing to send Mum a gift voucher because her Mother’s Day daffodils failed to open.

This will increasingly become the way companies interact with their costumers or as they’ll soon be called, users, and they’ll realise that the best feeds are those which sound as though they have passionate human being behind their corporate avatar rather than automatically simply linking to press releases.

Such things are expensive, but there’s a real benefit to having a dedicated Twitter user rather than someone who does social media on top of their other work, though it’s surprising how rarely such jobs are advertised. They’re usually still crouched in terms like “marketing” which they are but the skill set isn’t quite the same.

Search and other data applications will also become increasingly important. In Jan 2009, every search result on Google was advised as being harmful. My first thought was that it might be a virus. My second was to search Twitter and sure enough the entire planet was witnessing the same phenomena. The Googleplex was confused and Twitter also eventually let me know that the outrage had been resolved.

Oh I'm running out of time. Erm ...

Contexts will improve! Search for Liverpool on Twitter and the results are swamped with football related tweets. It’s possible to filter those out with carefully chosen terms but perhaps in the future you’ll be able to tell whatever that you don’t like football and it’ll do the job for you.

The data Twitter supplies is also being used by companies to test products, a massive, passive focus group able to provide instant reviews of anything from food to television programmes, something networks are discovering to their cost as they can watch the project they’ve nurtured over months being destroyed within a few minutes.

But similarly, this instant consensus allows us consumers base our choices somewhat on other people’s experiences. Not that we should become too carried away. We’ll still need experts. I think. I hope.

None of which wasn’t impossible before. It’s just that Twitter, Facebook and the rest make it much easier.

Like I said, there’ll be new platforms, new technologies.

Smart phones will become cheaper, data too, so within five or ten years or even sooner, everyone will have one, even me, with all the knock on social effects, positive and negative and it’ll be increasingly difficult not to be wired in making speculative fiction of the past look positively anachronistic.

None of which should at all be seen as me giving a definitive answer. Because I don’t have one. I simply don’t know.

But luckily I'm out of time. Thank you.

[Disclaimer: This is an imaginary talk in homage to the sterling work of those who were brave enough to speak at last night's Ignite 8 in Liverpool].

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