Social media has perhaps been the biggest breakthrough in technology and media since the birth of the mainstream internet 25 years ago. From the basic chatrooms that allowed people to connect at Yahoo and MSN to the global behemoths of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, social technologies have become the enablers that have digitised and scaled these relationships on a global scale.
But social technologies have moved beyond simply connecting individuals and allowing relationships to develop. Peer-to-peer marketplaces such as Airbnb also leverage social dynamics to enable (commercially motivated) connections between people. In fact, it’s probably more helpful to think of social technologies as a spectrum: some are more ‘social’ than others.
For example, whereas Airbnb is a commercial platform from which many accommodation businesses are run, Couchsurfing is more of a social community, focusing on building social connections between travellers and locals, with no money exchanging hands. A similar distinction exists between ridesharing apps like Uber and BlaBlaCar.
So where are we going with social? Well, clearly these technologies are still growing: By 2021, it is estimated that there will be over 3 billion social media users. This enormous user base presents valuable commercial opportunities to businesses of all kinds, large and small.
And, as the reach and functionality of social technologies expanded, so will their commercial potential. As Facebook has shown in the last 10 years, the more useful and engaging features offered through social technologies, the more data on users’ habits are generated and can be aggregated to identify trends and opportunities for commercialization.
Beyond that, other technologies are allowing social media to grow beyond their initial channels, converging to create new connected platforms. By using Application Programme Interfaces (APIs) to connect multiple social technologies and digital ecosystems together, the boundaries of social technologies, and their reach into users’ lives will be greatly extended.
By doing that, we are seeing a world where users will be able to access multiple services through a variety of APIs, no matter where they are, straight from their mobile devices. On top of that, Artificial Intelligence (AI) enables people to discover, from vast user bases, fellow users with whom they share some sort of meaningful connection, whether that is shared interests, shared friends, or physical proximity.
Under the hood
In terms of the front end of social media, users won’t notice much difference: the computing power necessary to run AI applications can now be offloaded onto the cloud, allowing the most sophisticated AI process to run on any device, including smartwatches and wearables. But the supporting technology ios developing at a lightning pace.
And it’s not just AI that will vastly extend social technology: applications like blockchain and VR are also fuelling more convergence. Take WeChat: the perfect example of how social media, commerce, and entertainment can merge. More than a social media network, We Chat allows users to do day-to-day tasks such as storing their IDs, paying their utilities, and getting access to public services, including booking doctor appointments, applying for visas, and checking driving records.
It goes further: Facebook is already experimenting in this space and while its much-mooted move into cryptocurrency has yet to materialize, it gives a hint on future possibilities. Meanwhile, although phones will remain the main device for accessing social media, the usage of AR and VR devices will also increase in the next decade as they get lighter and more versatile, expanding their usage beyond gaming.
Social media is still in its infancy. And while it faces challenges – concerns over the harvesting of personal data, privacy, and Fake News have still yet to be addressed – there’s no doubt it is becoming more embedded in how we connect, communicate, do business, shop, consume news, market and sell our products and services. The future is yet to come.