Call it Web 3.0 or social, but the Internet has been moving in a new direction for the last many years. It used to be search that really uncovered the billions of pieces of content. Now, it's people. Search engines continue to help us find exactly what we're looking for. Social helps us navigate, interact, explore the web & connect with people. It makes the Internet human.
A few years ago, blogging took off making it super easy for the average person to express their thoughts & opinions; companies like Technorati & Digg emerged that specialized in surfacing popular content by the masses. As high bandwidth became more and more ubiquitous, sharing digital content like photos and music became popular with flickr & Apple iTunes leading the way. Just a handful of years ago, YouTube opened up the world for digital content making it easy for people to upload video. Time made the new social/digital age official when they announced YOU as the person of the year in 2006. And most recently, Facebook really took social to the next level as it became the place for users to store photos, digital media, contacts, preferences, status updates. What made Facebook really take off is the "stickiness"; a word permanently engraved in the minds of entrepreneurs from the dotcom days. Stickiness meant more eyeballs and eyeballs somehow magically translated to dollars. In this day and age, there are a handful of proven business models that make this dream a reality. Advertising, of course, with companies like Google cashing in. Micro-payments is another emerging business model with Apple, Microsoft and other companies going down that road. At the same time Facebook took off, so did Twitter. Too noisy for me personally and a driving hazard for people who really want to update the world what they are doing or thinking every minute :-). In these past few years, along with all the innovation, several big acquisitions took place with Yahoo! purchasing Flickr, Google buying YouTube & Microsoft investing in Facebook.
Phew. That was a quick history rant. So what's going to happen next? Well, the Internet is a free world, and competition is bound to come up. More social networking sites are coming up, invitations are filling inboxes, and startups are trying to ride the social networking wave with some differentiation. Some are doing OK and perception is that they add value (LinkedIn comes to mind -- speaking of which, sites liked LinkedIn, Classmates & Friendster had some level of popularity though never were sticky enough nor platformy enough to take off).
With the amount of social networking apps, digital content & other scattered content, consumers are screaming for someone to just make it easy. Give me one place to do my status updates for example. It reminds me of the 90s when people signed up for new e-mail accounts every so often and then wanted to consolidate inboxes. Email forwarding has helped address that problem. In the late 90s, it was about Internet chatting - MSN messenger, Yahoo! messenger & AIM (ICQ started that particular wave - eventually getting bought out by AOL). Those challenges have dissipated with standardized protocols & agreements. There's now a real consumer push for aggregation when it comes to social; there's a real push for making it easy, safe & useful.
So how can Social get easier? Here are some things to look out for:
There are companies foraying into the world of standards & aggregation. This will take time, just like it did with Internet chatting where companies will have to work together and make it seamless. Without a common language, it's difficult and, at best, is a "hack". Some companies like Google are already pushing standards; however, a standard means nothing without critical mass. So it's either going to have to gain momentum with social networks buying in or a standards body will have to be formed comprising of different people in the industry to push a standard. Until then, individual companies will expose their own APIs and there will be plugins & add-ins that attempt to do some kind of syncing b/w two different applications.
2. IE & FireFox Integration
To me, browser integration with social seems obvious. Just like there are Microsoft Live & Google toolbars for search, there needs to be something for social. It's a function of time before Google drives social integration into their Chrome browser in an attempt to drive greater relevancy, integrate with their existing properties & promote their OpenSocial standard. If you haven't seen it, Microsoft new MSN toolbar @ http://www.newmsntoolbar.com/ is *really* cool and shows how technologies like Silverlight can make this social integration absolutely great. Imagine being able to update your status, see your friends & chat with them right from your browser. Without a social standard, it's not easy to achieve.
3. Email & Chat
Whether you like it or not, email is the most popular asynchronous way to communicate; chatting (MSN Messenger, Yahoo!, AIM) is the most popular form of synchronous communication. I didn't even qualify this with "Internet", even though SMS w/ younger generations & "snail" mail with older generations continue to be popular. The telephone, though widely used for synchronous communication and likely to edge out Internet chatting today, is being replaced by voice over IP, webcams.
Given the popularity of email & chat, there's a real opportunity to really integrate social with popular email & chat services. Google has attempted to do that with Gmail w/ the GTalk integration. Microsoft has recently done it with MSN Messenger & http://home.live.com. If you ask me, and yes, I am biased :-)), Microsoft has the best chance to really integrate email (Live Hotmail, Outlook), chat (MSN Messenger), browser (Internet Explorer) & web (Live). I would love to see that happen soon!
Social is about people & content and that includes you & your content! Thus far, I've focused on consistency with how to connect with other people. But it's equally important for you to be able to have your content (documents, email, contacts) available on all your machines, devices and in the cloud. Microsoft's Live Mesh has been a life changing product for me b/c now I have the same set of content on my home & work machines. I can't tell you how many times I've relied on Mesh at work or at a customer site. There's an opportunity to extend this thinking and mesh not just your own content, but other people's content - especially, people that you trust. Mesh has a lot of growth opportunity and I think it will be an important piece when it comes to social over the next many years.
5. Back to Basics
Most social networks today are really focused on connecting you with a ton of people & a ton of applications. Over a year ago, I blogged about the strengths & weakness of Facebook @ http://blogs.msdn.com/arpans/archive/2007/10/14/is-your-face-on-facebook.aspx. I haven't seen many things change since my SWOT analysis. There is always initial excitement with new things & connecting with new people. However, as these things become a part of our daily lives, what used to be cool becomes annoying; what used to be exciting becomes counter-productive. You want to go back to the core and really keep in touch with your core group - the people you care about. Facebook has kept the volume knob high and this has resulted in a deterioration of the quality of applications. My hypothesis is that Facebook, for the majority of users, is becoming nothing more than a place to update statuses, message friends & upload digital pics. That's not a bad thing, but I think there continues to be a missed opportunity on the application front. Apple has done a better job with iTunes and their iPhone app store. I also think Microsoft is well positioned with their Live initiative with technologies like Mesh, Messenger & http://home.live.com.
Well, there you have it. Some of my suggestions on how social can get better in 2009 & beyond!