Thursday, 17 March 2011

Facebook - where next for social networks?

Want to know what the next big thing in social networking is after Facebook and Twitter? Of course you do.
Humans are, after all, social animals and we are genetically programmed to seek out spaces, real or virtual, where we can meet, chat and socialise with
So are we all going to live in virtual 4D holographic bubbles come 2020? In which we can virtually socialise and interact with our friends and family as if they were sitting in the same room? Just as you call up your contacts on Skype or Facebook Chat or Windows Live Messenger, might you soon be able to instantly ping a virtual representation of their body in real-time right onto the couch in front of you?
Or, if some of the advocates of artificial intelligence are to be believed, might we, before long, be able to create our own AI friends and family - should we be particularly unhappy with the ones we've been landed with in real life? Beguiling notions, for sure, but whether or not they are ever going to resemble reality or be discarded into the recycling bin marked 'daft sci-fi futures' remains to be seen. We can reconvene in 2020 to check on which.
One industry that does have a grasp on where the future of social networking is headed is the marketing and advertising trade because, like it or not, advertising dollars are the fuel that Facebook, Google and all those other 'free' online services you use day-in-day-out run on.

The Facebook of tomorrow
For those with a professional interest in the future of online social networking, it may well be worth your while booking a flight to Montreux in Switzerland this coming May, to attend this year's Festival of Media. Speakers at the festival's Media Accelerator Program (MAP) are selected from the cream of the most successful media, marketing and app development companies in the world.
Basically, if any group of people has a grasp on what Facebook and its ilk might turn into over the next decade, it's these guys. And the festival's 'Hot Companies of the Year' awards, which go to those devs and new media companies creating the latest innovations and pushing the coolest new possibilities with social media, give a clear indication of where all of our online social lives are headed in the future.
As such, I asked a number of MAP delegates about their views on what comes after Facebook, to try to get an inside track on where social networking is heading in the next five years.
MAP panel chairman Bernhard Glock, former global media director of Procter and Gamble and President of the World Federation of Advertisers, describes MAP as being, "about finding the Facebook of tomorrow, by bringing together start-up and new emerging companies in the media and marketing communication area and putting them in front of industry-leading participants."
Interestingly, in Glock's opinion, many of these marketing and advertising industry heads don't actively scout for new ideas, relying instead on their external agencies to alert them to new trends in the online social networking market.
"I was very much "internally focused" and "externally protected" as Vice President for Global Media at P&G and received filtered information from my own organization and agencies," says Glock. "Now that I have been out in the media market for more than a year with my own consultancy company and more recently as a partner with Medialink, I am fascinated by and excited about dealing with start-up and new emerging companies with genuinely groundbreaking media ideas."

But what might MAP 2011's speakers and new start-ups have to tell us about the future of social networking?
"My assumption is that we'll see several Facebook-style companies, as well as plenty of totally fresh ideas," says Glock. "Among all digital developments, social media is one of the fastest growing and most exciting phenomena. Facebook has changed how human beings socialise forever, so I look forward to seeing world changing ideas emerge at the Festival."
Facebook: the poster child of social media
Another MAP judge, Greg Brooks, content director for the festival organisers, C Squared gave me his own thoughts on the future direction of Facebook.
"The future Facebook will be a platform-neutral company, with its services accessed through mobile phones or tablets as easily through a PC," said Brooks. "It will also likely involve the innovative use of data, both in collection and also usage with regards to connecting users to advertisers in more relevant ways."
In Brooks' opinion, while Facebook is "the poster child of social media," the advertising industry feels that it has "only just begun to scratch the surface of the power of the social graph" opened up by Mr Zuckerberg's network.
"The next wave of pure plays will use social data at their core, to connect users and advertisers in more meaningful and engaging ways, whilst enhancing the overall digital experience for the user," says Brooks.
"There is also no guarantee that the next Facebook will come from the West," notes Brooks. "China has more mobile users than any other country on earth, almost three times the number of US mobile users, and with the rise of the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) you are just as likely to see the next two guys in a garage coming from Guangzhou as Palo Alto."
Which, translated into non-ad-industry-speak, all seems to suggest that, in the future, online advertising will become both less intrusive - targeting your own very specific needs and interests - and, at the same time, more entertaining.
Well, that's what I hope (and fervently pray) my translation means...