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March 06, 2008

The future of social networks: Social networks will be like air

by Charlene Li

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.


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José Luis

Everything you said seems more than reasonable, up until point 4.

I grant that i'm an outsider to marketing, but all this "influencer" talk (in every single blog talking about "social network/media") seems to me more related with some form of self-celebrity that is present in the blog-sphere. This everyday reality for bloggers is so absorbing that resembles hollywood stars and their self-centered lifes (absurd at times).

In my experience, there are many people in my day to day life that influences me. There is not a single influence, but many, and these influencers vary day to day (sometimes i even listen to people i don't particularly like for advice if i consider they have expertise on the subject).

Maybe this is true just for myself, but i think most regular humans have the same experience, hence there is no real "one influencer", outside the blogger/celebrity circuit. This is exactly what happens today when a sports star appears in a commercial, hence i don't think that it is different to be considered "future" (it is present already).

To be honest, if it ever happens that i begin to be considered an influencer among my friends and start receiving pokes to endorse this o that brand, i would probably become very upset and would seek a way to stop it (with very loud and public complains, most likely).
As much as users get ad-blindness, they get celebrity-blindness and they will get influencer-blindness.


John McCrea

Great stuff, Charlene! I completely agree, but would add one company name to the list of key players: Plaxo. They have been in the lead on the topic of data portability and opening of the social web. I think they are in a great position to both facilitate this evolution and end up playing a central role as a "dashboard" for this Social Web. More comments here: http://therealmccrea.wordpress.com/2007/12/06/why-i-love-facebook-and-a-prediction-for-2008/


I have to agree with Jose on the point of influencers. I doubt that the soc nets could ever be considered to measure the influencing ability of any individual. Say, a person has 1000 friends versus someone who has just 100. Would that necessarily mean that the first has a greater influence? Not necessarily.
I have seen that even on a relatively more professional n/w like LinkedIn, different people adopting varying degrees of discretion in adding contacts. Some go beserk sending "link up" mails to all and sundry and almost treat the ability to brag about the no of contacts as a status symbol. Others (like myself) are cautious to only add thos whom I really know well enough so as to be able to reach out to them on a personal level if required. If thats the case with a relatively serious n/w like LinkedIn, whats to say of the more frivolous ones such as Myspace?


great article, let's talk about it on Twitter?

Filiberto Selvas

I loved what you said and I have written about it in my blog which I reference on this comment information; however the only thing I missed in it (I believe it is implied though) is that the marketing value is a product of the social influence times the relevant space; i.e. Charlene’s influences me considerably in Social Media.. in that context her pointers, advice and reviews are heavily taken into account. However there may be other context areas (I don’t know, Restaurant Recommendations?) where Charlene’s influence on me is not so valuable.

Filiberto Selvas

Scott Bauman

Extremely insightful post Charlene. Somehow I get the sense you're saying that despite the utter confusion that we see today (i.e., the best/worst efforts of marketers), the true social utility of social networking will eventually reach an natural equilibrium. The lubrication for this change will not be the next big applications, but rather the way marketers evolve (the enlightened ones) to accept how human beings are hard-wired to socialize in the first place.

Owen Cutajar

I love the idea of a single Identity I can leverage across multiple services, as well as a single social graph, but I think the biggest challenge will come from the current custodians of our identities and graphs. I'm sure that companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook place a great deal of value on the personal assets they hold for us and I'm sure, would be very reluctant to share that information.

Granted, this is a pretty short term view, but I think it will be one of the major challenges in what looks like a pretty rosy future.


"And also, without that social context in our connected lives, we won’t really feel like we are truly living and alive".

We don't need social networks to have a social life.

Social neworks are trying to reproduce our real social activities, not the opposite.

Plus: when a person becomes influential and starts endorsing some brands, it becomes a marketer, thus is not anymore a friend (in our virtual social network), but the voice of a company which in some way pays him to advertise their products. That's incompatible with friendship.


Amadou M. Sall

Now we know what to expect. And it doesn't sound too bad, really... if you are prepared to increase your own (marketing ) value as an individual, based on your social influence! Insightful and prophetic post.

José Luis

... if you are prepared to increase your own (marketing ) value as an individual, based on your social influence! ...

That is exactly the problem!!!! I don't want to! The whole idea is based in the view of companies, not in the view of people (ironic, giving how it is promoted).

I WILL NOT JEOPARDIZE a relationship because of some marketing value (which to me, is irrelevant, to be honest). When i recommend something, i do it carefully (even when my recommendation is strong), because there are always side-effects on other people's lives that i cannot foresee. There is a big difference between a fan of some music band and a fan of a computer brand or a car, etc.

If i where akin to wildly recommend things to other people, it would be to people i DON'T know, so the whole idea is does not hold.

Geoff Livingston

I really like the personal social graph unified in concentric circles. Also, kudos for having the guts to put this vision out there. Way to go.

Indus Khaitan


Great insight. To complete the story, you have to put a "weight" on the social graph. The social graph as we see today, is a simple directed graph. If you add reputation as weight on the directed edges, the reachability from vertex A to vertex C can be influenced by the sum of weights in between. This also completes the story as in why you wanna reply to Josh immediately than other e-mails. Would you choose to ignore the other e-mails if you knew that the sender also has a higher reputation in your social graph?

In the real world these weights are implied and are inscribed in our brain for contexts. However, in the virtual world we live in -- the weight could be nothing more than the reputation (possibly derived from what we say, we do, and what we interact with).

As a daily slashdot reader, I could compare the reputation to my 'karma' (for modding within slashdot) or Sezwho.com for my distributed reputation (tho, I don't have one right now!). This could be the basis of a "Personal CPM" leading to identification of key influencers.

Tom Baker

I think the comments above that are critical of the "influence" people might have are sort of missing the point. That already happens - every day. How many times in our everyday life do we ask a friend what movie to go see, or where to go eat, or what home theater system to purchase (something I have been doing the past week or so)? Furthermore, how many times do we or friends give unsolicited recommendations. I love to read and am very careful about making book recommendations because reading a book is such a time investment. However, without friends who recommend books I would be lost.

Basically, I agree with the person who stated above that social networks are trying to replicate our real lives, not vice versa. I think the real issue regarding social networks from a marketing perspective (and as a marketing professor this is something in which I have become very interested) is the extent to which businesses try to use social networks for good (e.g., listen to consumer conversations to truly understand consumer needs) rather than evil (e.g., use social networks to simply try to sell products to people).

José Luis

Regarding the "SoNet trying to catch up", i think that it is true for the time being, but as SoNets get even more mature AND open, they will surpass reality and start to allow a lot of things that are not possible now (just as the telephone or the printed book did). Even today, public voting sites allow for the spreading of news by allowing stories to "big jump" to different portions of the world wide (social) graph, as much as e-mail and other many methods allow for the small jumps in the same graph.
This alone will fasten the democratization of the world, and that is by itself a very good thing (and is much more peaceful and dolar-efficient than wars, political plots, etc). SoNets will change many aspects of our lives.

The other side of the story is the influence side. Every time i've got an example of how this works is related to entertainment (books, movies) or social activities (go to the theater or a restaurant). These activities are social by nature, and fit perfectly well in a SoNet. I believe purchasing is different in it's very own nature!

Maybe Charlene and many many others are passionate about what they are describing and i'm misreading that passion (i'm not in marketing as a professional, but as a "customer", you know what i mean...).

What puzzles me is that i receive all this as some sort of Newtonian phenomenon (cause and effect) when the truth about humans is that we are much more chaotic.

Of course the "influencer" effect exists today (just turn on the tv and see many celebrities-endorsed commercials). But we (customers) are not blind to that (in any form it takes).
I do not endorse brands in the way i perceive is being talked about (neither do most adults that i know, child and teens are likely a different story).

I really want to understand what is it that i'm not getting right about this!


I wonder, if you are such a self proclaimed expert, then why do you not go out and do this yourself? Start a company.


Fascinating read Charlene and as per Geoff L., the charts are great.

The problem I see with "Personal CPM" is that our societal norms currently work against actually ever admitting that you were influenced by someone. You may seek out the opinions of friends and likely act on those opinions: but admitting it publicly is still something of a faux pas, tantamount to admitting that you have no mind of your own.

The other great unknown in social networking is mutuality: I may consider you my great friend and one of my inner circle, whereas to you I may just be someone you know casually. How to balance those two viewpoints in a way that doesn't lead to hurt feelings is tricky. It even crops up in something as basic as Plaxo, where you're asked to ID someone as Work/Friend/Family. So what if you consider me a Friend but I consider you someone I know through Work.

I don't see this is a fatal flaw, just one that needs to be dealt with as we move forward.

Rahna Barthelmess

I love this conversation, and the ideas Charlene puts forth are quite interesting. As with everything, though, the context of who you are talking to (and with) plays an enormous role in establishing the verity of your statement that social networking will be like “air.” I say that as an over-40 year old who has had a LinkedIn account since 2003 and has just recently (reluctantly) gotten a Facebook account.
I see the value of networking from a business standpoint, but my personal relationships are, for the most part, not web-based. I strongly agree with the comment posted “We don't need social networks to have a social life. Social networks are trying to reproduce our real social activities, not the opposite.”
You mentioned that friends in your morning walking group “don’t participate in social networks – and won’t for the foreseeable future.” These are the type of people who don’t necessarily know the short-hand language of text messaging, don’t really see the difference between e-mail and IM, and do not understand the panic of not being able to find your Blackberry when you already late for work in the morning. The conversation about social networking is happening within certain circles of people who are more comfortable communicating digitally. I personally hate it. If you want to talk with me, pick up the phone and call me. Sadly, I think that preference simply shows my age.

But I know that there are MILLIONS who do choose to communicate this way, and for them, I agree with Charlene that it is (and will be) as natural as breathing. But as you continue this discussion, understand another of the challenges, which is, essentially, the reach (or the limits of the reach) of this type of communication.

Related to that, the challenge of establishing the marketing value for marketers goes beyond just figuring out how to make it happen…it goes to how to make it relevant for the marketer.

I am a Marketing Strategist who has leveraged on-line communities for consumer conversation, as well as product development and introduction when I worked in the marketing department at LEGO. Now that I am a consultant, I find that it is hard, in some cases, to convince someone to invest marketing dollars on networking sites. For the most part, I am dealing with people of a similar age to me (or older), who did not have a Facebook account (or even an email address!) when they went to college, so the personal belief in digital social networking is not there. It’s easy to support a recommendation for a Facebook effort to one Client who is going after the graduating senior in college, but it’s a much harder sell (and a much murkier marketing challenge) for my Client who is looking to sell a Cadillac.

I also find the discussion about whether or not to recommend a product to be somewhat funny. I disagree with the commenter who posted, “There is a big difference between a fan of some music band and a fan of a computer brand or a car, etc.” No, there isn’t….not when you really believe in the product. The social networking value for a marketer is simple:
• Provide something truly of value to a consumer group
• Then let that consumer group know that you are providing it.
A strong, community-based marketing effort really just fans the flame of a specific target’s desire (that should already exist for a compelling product). If you are selling crap, any marketing effort will fail. One of the first things marketers learn is that nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising. Everyone tries it, hates it, and you’re done.
Perhaps Charlene’s ideas of simplifying the process for social networking management will help broaden the reach of social networking and bring it closer to being “like air.”
I will also post this commentary on my blog at if you would like to read more:


How else can we measure social influence?

Search Engine Optimization Journal

What great insight! It is crazy to think how archaic social networks such as Facebook and Myspace. It seems that newer ideas being implemented will obviously take over the current thus making us always socially connected like you mentioned. Every year there seems to be a new social platform that has never been introduced before. It will be interesting to see the benefits of these mediums in the future as in some ways being more socially connected via the internet could prove to be less beneficial to many in the long term.


great post! now i have a fair idea how to go about my long standing thesis completion, i can see lots of new coms daring to go the way, we have gypsii and zyb and yahoo one connect to watch for.

Samuel Driessen

Great (long) post! You mention 2 enablers for social network to be like air in the future. "Technology" and "trust". The first is clear and I agree in a couple of years it'll be good enough social air networks. Could you comment on the second one, trust? Are you saying everyone will be in everyone's network? Of course eventually this is true (6 degrees), but it's based on the network connections that the user/I make, right? So is trust really an issue? It is now and will be in the future, right?


Mark Federman calls the basis of your argument UCaPP (ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate) ...

Many references to this in works of McLuhan and Derrick De kerkove that take it way beyond social networks to digital communications technology in general.

Worth some back reading if you get the chance.....

Paul Paradise

I think the surge in social networks will subside given the fact that most depend on click through ads for funding. This will be a major issue for them as users are becoming more and more "blind" to PPC ads. The only way they can survive long term is to charge for their services. Or develop top-notch ad campaigns with major businesses as apposed to low-key click client ads.

Social Network Graphics Management

Vladislav Chernyshov

Hello, thank you very much for your article!

It inspired me to make summary of burning problems of social networking. You can read it here on my blog: http://tinyurl.com/3me6c3

Take care,
Vladislav Chernyshov


So far in this series of posts about passwords, I’ve returned to the idea that as a technology, passwords have a both material and methodological aspects. That is, how you use the technology is as important as how advanced its parts are. So far, this discussion of improving passwords has largely focussed on the material side, namely OAuth and OpenID, and password interfaces. These improvements happen at the will and ability of the people making web and desktop applications. As such, users will always be waiting for them to happen if they haven’t already. This post takes things to the methodological side, which is more the user’s domain, by describing the rules I use to make strong yet memorable passwords that are unique for each account.

Blog Picture

With people spend more time in front of computer and less time with real people, online social network will be more and more diversified.

Steven Harmision

Thanks your good article.I read & enjoyed that story.

Dana Clockedile

Have to add my agreement we will be seeing a different SN scene in a very few years. Anyone who is interested can see a very small step into the future by going to this page. It's a very small step but it is a first step.


Future of social media is changing .. Its not like before..


Robert Gold

Charlene was recently a terrific guest on the BusinessCast podcast. She's a great interview, with real insights. Check out her insightful thoughts and comments here:


Charlene doesn't get caught up in the hype of social networking tools - she's all about being effective in your communication, and knowing your market.

She's well worth listening to.



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