The future of social networks: Social networks will be like air
On Monday, I gave the kick off speech for the Graphing
Social Patterns West conference on the topic, “The Future Of Social Networks”
(slides are available on SlideShare, summaries available on News.com, ReadWriteWeb, and allfacebook.) Note that this is still ongoing research, so I welcome your comments.
I set my time frame for the long term – five, even ten years out. That’s because unless we know where we want to end up, how could we ever craft a strategy to get there? For inspiration, I thought about my grade-school kids, who in ten years will be in the midst of social network engagement. I believe they (and we) will look back to 2008 and think it archaic and quaint that we had to go to a destination like Facebook or LinkedIn to “be social”.
Instead, I believe that in the future, social networks will be like air. They will be anywhere and everywhere we need and want them to be. And also, without that social context in our connected lives, we won’t really feel like we are truly living and alive, just as without sufficient air, we won’t really be able to breathe deeply.
There are four components of what I’m calling this idea of “ubiquitous social networks”: 1) Profiles; 2) Relationships; 3) Activities; and 4) Business models. These aren’t new -- I wrote about the first three in my original report on social networks back in May 2004. But in the context of ubiquitous social networks, they will develop into the following: 1) Universal identities; 2) A single social graph; 3) Social context for activities; and 4) Social influence defining marketing value. For more detail on each of these components, see the extended post (warning: it's really long!).
The ubiquitous social network isn’t going to happen overnight – in fact, it’s going to take five+ years to come to fruition. This is part of the continued evolution of open platforms, starting with walled garden services like Prodigy, Compuserve, and AOL that evolved into the major portal aggregators like Yahoo!, MSN, and AOL. This gave way to the “search era” where Google et. al. made all of the Internet easily accessible. Today’s social networks are a throwback to those early closed platforms, and they will be opened up by new “entrants” into the social space – namely, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, and AOL – who will leverage their deep, daily relationships with online audiences.
In the end, there are two essential things that have to present for this all to happen. The first is technology -- ubiquitous Internet access and the servers to enable real-time social graph access. Given the pace of technology development, I'm pretty sure this will happen. The second is much harder -- trust has to be present, between people, between social networks, marketers, and developers. This is what is going take a lot of time, effort, and patience, but the optimist in me thinks that it will come. That's because people will press for it, demanding that sites and applications adhere to a Bill of Rights for users of the Social Web.
So what is a social network, marketer, or developer to do? Here are my recommendations:
- Create linkages between services based on individually-controlled identity federation
- Compete on creating the most compelling social experience, not social graph lock-in
- Develop social applications that have meaning
- Integrate social networks into existing activities
- Design business models that reflect the value created by people’s social network
In the extended post (click on "More" below) is a more detailed explanation of how I see each of the four components of ubiquitous social networks developing.
As I mentioned above, this is ongoing research and I'm far from done. So if you have ideas, comments, criticisms, or examples, let me know via comments below or email at cli at forrester dot com.
1) Universal identities. There’s nothing more painful than having to maintain multiple profiles on different sites. I have profiles on social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn. I have profiles also on social media services like del.icio.us, Twitter, and Digg. There are accounts on Google, Yahoo, Windows Live, and AOL, and shopping profiles and feedback on Amazon and eBay. And then there are the identities I have with my work, my church, and my kids’ school.
What complexity! But then again, I’m a pretty complex person, as are most people. How to boil it down? First let’s get at the real problem – I want to be able to maintain and control my identity, and when needed, to make them connected between services. And I think that the way to do this is a federated approach, similar to how OpenID is approaching it. But honestly – how many of you have an OpenID, and use it?!? This is not to say that OpenID doesn’t work, but that each person already has an identity that can be tied back to email addresses and mobile numbers. These are personal, tied typically to one person, and most importantly, under our control. I already use my email address to log into most of my online services. And my mobile number is tied to my Twitter account.
In the future, there will likely be a few large centers for this federated identity, namely, the largest providers of email addresses like Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, and AOL. They will need to be willing to accept and aggregate identities outside of their proprietary systems, for example, I could pair my Gmail address to my Yahoo! account. There is also a role for players like Plaxo who help aggregate and synthesize these various contact points. Watch carefully to see how organizations like the Data Portability Group facilitate the opening of identity and profile systems from currently closed services like Facebook and LinkedIn. I think they will participate because they realize that together they can grow the market faster and better.
2) A single social graph. I have a pretty extensive social graph on services like LinkedIn and Facebook, but they are far from complete. I’m still missing most of my extended family, my Forrester colleagues, school friends, the parents at my children’s school, neighbors, and most importantly, the women in my morning walking group. These are the people I interact with every day – and they don’t participate in social networks – and won’t for the foreseeable future. But I interact with them every day – with emails, IMs, phone calls, and in person.
It’s these simple, communication-based interactions that can be used to create relationship maps. Josh Bernoff and I connect with frequently every day – I shouldn’t have to tell a social network that I’m friends with him. My social graph should monitor (with my permission) who I interact with, how often, and with what velocity (e.g. I reply to Josh immediately, but I may take a day to get back to someone else who has emailed me). This relationship map serves as the foundation for my social graph, while the explicit “friends” that I denote form another valuable layer. Here’s an illustration of what this implicit relationship maps could look like (this comes from my May 2004 report).
Who’s in the best position to do this? Again, major portal players like Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, and AOL who have deep, daily interactions across multiple channels and in different topic areas.
In the context, the idea of social graphs being “owned” by different social networks makes no sense. Yet, all of today’s social networks build their business model and competitive advantage on having the largest, most complete social graph. The result: I have a close colleague who enjoys exploring all of the new social networks and “friends” me on all of them, figuring I’m a pretty good person to have in his new network. In a world with a single social graph, he would be able to import his existing personal, social graph into any new service, and immediately begin enjoying the new service without having to wait for his friends to catch up. And I would be spared the insanity of having to accept his umpteenth “friend” invitation!
Dave McClure has an excellent illustration of just what this insanity look like:
In a world of a single social graph, social networks will have to compete on the basis of creating the best experience for its members – not because it controls a unique social graph.
3) Social context for activities. The brilliance of Facebook Platform is that it greatly expanded what people could do on social networks. The problem is that what people do is still pretty limited. Take a look at the top applications on Facebook – they can be roughly grouped into 1) managing/comparing/interacting with friends in a general context; 2) self-expression (FunWall, Bumper Sticker); 3) games; and 4) media preferences (iLike, Flikster). These are all fun and interesting, but they only begin to scratch the surface of what I do every day.
The biggest hole and opportunity, IMHO, is shopping. I research and buy things online every day, and with rare exception, these activities take place outside of Facebook. Facebook Beacon brings some of the information into News Feed, while a few shopping-oriented applications like StyleFeeder have potential. But by and large, social networks don’t figure into my shopping experiences.
But it could, and in a very significant want. Take for example, a book review that Dave McClure wrote on the book “The Mystery Of Capital” within the Books iRead application on Facebook. I happened to run into the review last year, but it wasn’t in context. Instead, I want to see reviews from my friends when I’m in the book buying process – on sites like Amazon.com and BN.com. It would mean a lot more for you to look at the Groundswell page on Amazon, and because you’re sign-in with your email address, be able to see any review a friend has written about the book – even if it’s on their personal blogs. That’s the epitome of social networks being like air, when it’s integrated into everything that you do.
4) A business model where social influence defines marketing value. Today’s advertising models don’t work on social networking sites – that’s because simply targeting better on profile or social graph details is still the same old media model of CPM and CPC pricing. What’s missing is marketing value based on how valuable I am in the context of my influence. For example, Steve Rubel is a highly influential person because he is an authority on social media, the people in his social graph tend to interested in his views, and they in turn have a great deal of authority as well. (Several people came up to me after the speech and said that this is similar to a "PageRank of people", a very easy way to crystallize the idea.)
This means that each person will have their
own “personal CPM”, an idea I heard JWT's Marian Salzman discuss at a private event
in February (here are more details on the JWT's Top Trends for 2008). The idea is that marketers want to reach highly influential
people, and hopefully curry their endorsements. This has traditionally been the
province of public relations, where they reach out to key influencers. But in
the world of social networks, this is influence writ large and wide – every person
has their own network of influence, and hence, their own personal CPM or value
that they contribute to a social network.
There are several start-ups as well as established agencies that are already looking at marketing, brokering, measuring, etc. social influence, so you can expect to hear more about this topic soon. But don’t expect advertising spending to quickly embrace social influence – after all, the vast majority of ad budgets are spent by media buyers who still cleave to the tried and true reach and frequency, CPM models.
The upshot of this is that in a world of universal identity, a single social graph, and distributed social activities, social networks will have to compete on their ability to create an experience that can attract and retain the most valuable individuals. Just like search, the competition will be just a click away. Yet, despite the similarities and constant innovation, people are amazingly loyal to specific search engines.