Social media, types of media where everyday people can publish and subscribe to what one another publishes, have changed the world. At least in the United States, though, their rapid expansion through acquisition of new users may be over.
Facebook specialist Eric Eldon published a compilation of statistics from around the web this week on TechCrunch that pointed towards US and Canadian market saturation this past year for Facebook. Surely Facebook represents the forward line of all social media. Academic and tech industry analyst Vivek Wadhwa posted a set of predictions for 2012 in the Washington Post last night, starting with a prediction that the period of rapid growth for social media is over. In the future it will be a feature, not a product, he argues. To startups and investors, Wadha says "It's time to jump on the next bandwagon, folks."
"No matter how you slice the data," Vivek Wadhwa said on Twitter, "the exponential growth in Social Media is no more. Just gradual growth now."
Wadhwa is an astute observer of long-term technology trends and is likely correct within a particular understanding of the situation. For one thing, I can't help but imagine raw user numbers still have a long, long way to go in many parts of the world just beginning to come online.
Even within the US and the rest of the West though, such conclusions require an assumption that the key metric is number of new users in total. "Instead of raw user growth," Eldon argues on Techcrunch, "the numbers to watch going forward will be around engagement."
What might that look like? I'd like to present two possibilities for major continued growth in social media.
Afterwords, Vivek Wadhwa's response.
The Instrumentation of Everyday Life
One way to understand engagement with social networks is not just time on site, but data provided as input. Mark Zuckerberg sees it this way, he argues that the amount of information people share doubles every year.
Facebook's Open Graph API allows all kinds of websites to push user activity into their Facebook newsfeeds. The roll-out of Open Graph, widely referred to as Frictionless Sharing, has just barely begun. It's already super controversial. I believe it has been implemented in a way that puts the whole kitten caboodle at risk, unfortunately.
Have you noticed how much more prominent music has become in Facebook since the introduction of the Open Graph on Spotify, Rdio and other services? Now imagine that rolling out to everything you do online. It's already begun to enter into news reading and video viewing. Facebook is sure to do it better the next time around when they roll it out to shopping again, after the Beacom debacle several years ago.
Meals eaten? Hours of sleep slept? Distances traveled? TV shows and books watched? There are many more parts of our lives that can be wired up to Facebook or other social networks.
The instrumentation of everyday life may sound frightening to many people, but so did posting photos of yourself online or using a debit card (at all) just a few years ago.
If it's done well, with privacy protections, security, user education, informed consent and delighted users - then this type of engagement with social media could represent a huge and desirable period of growth in the industry.
"Just as location-based applications became a 'feature' rather than the 'big thing,' social media will live on and become an integral part of what we do," Wadha writes. "But the party's over for investors and start-ups in this space. The big growth is behind us. Revenues from social media have not lived up to the promises, and the vast majority of those thousands of start-ups are either dying or on the ropes. It's time to jump on the next bandwagon, folks."
Given the huge growth of data input that is likely just around the corner, it makes no sense to me that investors and start-ups don't have plenty of room to make money in social still.
The Web of Things
Connected devices, many of which you might not even consider connecting to the Web today, are expected to facilitate fundamental changes in human life over the next few years.
Hans Vestberg, CEO of Ericsson, predicts that the world's nearly 5 billion mobile phone subscribers today will be surpassed by 50 billion connected non-phone devices in 10 years.Wireless industry analyst Chetan Sharma says they will be connected to entirely new forms of electronics and will disrupt entire industries like consumer packaged goods. Imagine cereal boxes that detected when you were about to run out of cereal and automatically ordered more from the cereal maker. Maybe that cuts out retail altogether.
What does this have to do with social media? Quite simply, what do you think people will be doing while they ride in the driverless car that picked them up at home to take them to work? They'll be Facebooking and Tweeting, of course.
What will happen after your 50th automatic re-supply of Cap'n' Crunch? You'll win a Super Fan badge on your social media profile, I'm sure.
Blippy, the social network that publishes every debit card transaction you perform out into your social network of fellow exhibitionist friends may never take the world by fire. But Mint.com's aggregate financial data and benchmarking is much more likely to. Real-time data bout local spending sounds like social media to me.
Social media in the age of instrumentation and connected devices may be more about aggregate social activity than about the long voice blogging and Tweeting.
The intersection of people, machines and passively monitored objects (the cheapest input of all!) all combine to form an entirely new world of opportunity.
That may be the biggest opportunity yet.
As Mark Roberti, founding editor of the publication RFID Journal, wrote this Spring:
"This change - enabling computers to see and understand what is happening in the real world - is enormous. Most people have yet to grasp it, seeing RFID as a more expensive alternative to bar codes. They don't comprehend that when computers can automatically collect information regarding what is happening in the world, new insights and business strategies then become possible. And the companies that leverage these capabilities most effectively will be the big winners in the century ahead."
Cloud-scale information gathering regarding what is happening in the world we live in, leading to entirely new insights and business strategies. That sounds like social media to me.
I expect that this kind of information is going to make the number of photos we all pro-actively upload to Facebook look like a drop in the ocean. Let's hope this vision of the future gets built in a way that's equitable and pro-freedom. Those are key concerns here at the early morning, just after the dawn, of social media.
I was fortunate enough to catch Vivek Wadhwa on Twitter last night and sent him this post before publication. This was his response.
"I don't disagree with you. But I maintain that this segment will lose its sizzle--just like eCommerce did in the early days of the Internet. We overhyped this, invested in too many of the same startups, and portrayed this as a destination rather than a means. Facebook and to a lesser extent, Twitter will become platforms from which other, deeper, services are built. But gone are the days of the silly me too social media startups--the Twitter and Facebook clones.
"Look at 'location based services'--the insane hype that TechCrunch created around this. This has just become a feature that we take for granted and build other meaningful applications on. Social media will go the same way. It will persist and grow, but in depth and value rather than just numbers and hype.
"I expect the excitement and hype in 2012 to be in the social game companies, newfangled B2B technology plays, and cloud computing. These will be the next bubble. Soon after, we'll see the Big Data bubble. All of this is good because it spurs investment and innovation. That's the beauty of Silicon Valley--it moves from one fad to another as if nothing ever happened."