by Josh Bernoff
Here's what it was like in 2000: the Web frenzy was underway, and the predictions for it were completely out of hand. In many ways, they were overblown. And yet the long-term impact of the Web was far more pervasive than any of us had expected, along surprising dimensions.
It's the same now. Social technology in 2012 is the Web in 2000. The predictions both over- and underestimate its significance. Here's some perspective (always a badly needed commodity) from the Web of 2000, applied to the social technology world of now.
In 2000, less than two-thirds of American consumers were online, but many of them were only occasional users. Broadband made the difference -- it turned a "check-occasionally" experience into one that was a pervasive part of every interaction between companies and people. The rise of broadband was far more important than the rise of online penetration.
Now, more than half of Americans are in a social network. But as in 2000, keep your eye, not on penetration, but on the enabling technology, which in this case is mobile. Mobile changes social from a "check-when-I'm-at-a-PC" experience to one that pervades everyday life. Mobile penetration in the US will reach one in three consumers this year. The explosion of cheap smartphones in 2012 is what will make social part of the fabric of every interaction.
In 2000, all eyes were on eCommerce. Every company we worked with wanted an eCommerce strategy, and the likes of pets.com and furniture.com were threatening to challenge bricks-and-mortar retail. Commerce was huge, for sure -- try $60 billion this holiday season -- but for most companies selling online wasn't the big impact (and rather than killing bricks-and-mortar, the Web became an important strategic element of every traditional retailer). Instead of eCommerce, for most companies, it was service that mattered. Consumers wanted to get information both before and after the sale -- every company had to deliver on that promise.
Now, social commerce is again a big topic. But the overblown expectations around Groupon may lead to another disillusioned collapse. Once again, the real power of social technology is in service -- the successful companies are those that live up to their customers' service expectations by responding to queries in the social world, as Zappos and Comcast now already.
Finally, in 2000, all the focus was on how the Web changed companies' relationships with their customers. But arguably, the impact of the Internet was broader within companies. Everyone got email. Everyone got laptops with browsers installed. And as a result, organizations flattened -- anyone could reach anyone else, electronically, anywhere. This vastly increased the speed of collaboration and ratcheted up competitive demands.
Now, again, the focus is on social technology as it affects consumers. But increasingly, from Chatter to Newsgator, the staid old Intranet is becoming a social network that feels a lot like Facebook. Social interactions within companies are transforming the speed of interaction and flattening corporations even further. If you work for a sizable company, you may find in the next few years that your corporate social network is far more important to you than your Facebook page. Social will transform what it means to work in a company, just the Internet did.
Here's the value of perspective. Try to lift your viewpoint out of the tired old social technology dichotomy -- "We all have to do this now" vs. "Social is truly overhyped." Instead, ask yourself, once the social connection is part of every interaction, for most consumers, and both within and outside of companies, how will the world be different? The strategic thinker prepares for that.