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The Futures of Social Media
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Important Trends Without Sales Pitches Attached Seem More, Well, Important

For those of you who read this blog, you know that I am regularly befuddled when it comes to exploring the functionality and efficacy of social media campaigns. It's not that the practices are particularly complex or vague; rather, it's often the practitioners who are both, combining a confused emotional need to have their beliefs confirmed with a willingness to discard the laws of physics, rules of accounting, and the proofs of experience in order to find their validation.

Yet the field of social media shouldn't rely on faith, nor should it depend on the passions of its practitioners to prove its utility. Social media are tools that need to be objectively understood so that they can be applied to ever-newer uses. The idea that those uses are immense and significant is not a belief but a simple fact. What's frustrating is that such facts don't need to inspire converts as much as they should challenge the informed. When it comes to social media, too many people believe they already possess answers when they should be asking questions.

The Society for New Communications Research ("SNCR") is a rare exception to this rule.

In the spirit of full disclosure, SNCR Press is publishing my new book, Histories of Social Media, and I am a Senior Fellow. I happen to know their work first-hand and I respect it. SNCR partners with academicians and corporate sponsors to field research on a variety of social technologies and activities, and they're not trying to sell creative campaigns or consulting work (like a digital agency or research group like Forrester might). I just attended their 5th Annual Symposium late last week in Palo Alto, during which two days were filled with excruciatingly objective insights.

I wouldn't presume to write a report on the many presentations and award winners (you can visit their site to review the research abstracts), but here's a personal distillation of at least three areas that I think we should watch to see the futures of social media:

  • Location -- Building and supporting the where, when, and why of social experience will become as important (if not more so) than creating the what or trying to fine-tune the who. Contrast the near-abstraction of "friending" via Facebook and the reality of Haiti earthquake victims using Twitter and SMS to share their locations and ask for help. There are any number of social contexts that aren't as dire but which could benefit from campaigns that addressed the needs of people located in those contexts.
  • Embedded Experience -- Just like the first telephones used to command their own rooms or furniture, our use of social technologies has been tethered to traditional screens (stationary large or mobile small) and our habits of I/O (typing, entering, waiting). This is changing; one notable avenue is augmented reality, which overlays information on real-time experience. So imagine your social network linked to your sunglasses so your street view of local restaurants glows different colors based on their ratings or average wait time for a table. Or retail systems automatically recognizing you as a loyalty club member and dynamically adjusting prices you see on store shelves.
  • Utility -- I know most of what we're told about social media focuses on their marketing applications (or sometimes some vague discussion of innovation), but they're quietly getting put to work in a myriad of back-room, under-the-radar areas, such as non-profit fundraising and work group collaboration. This idea that social media could be needed not just wanted is very powerful, and utility could drive development insights far faster than we'd expect.

I have no idea if these trends will materialize or not, and SNCR takes no position on them, either. And that's the beautlful part: most of the research presentations were notable for how many times presenters qualified that the data weren't statistically meaningful, or the group debated the makeup of project conduct or the research panels. Wow. People interested in details and transparency, and not a "top 5 ways to do XYZ social activity" list to be found in the room. It's amazing what you can learn when somebody isn't trying to sell you something (or you're not doing the selling yourself).

SNCR accepts a limited number of fellows and their research projects each year. It's open to academicians, corporate-types, whomever, and the scope seems to cover both the hard, technical qualities of social endeavor, all the way to the experiential and even emotional dimensions of its experience. You just have to want to execute a legitimate research project.

I can't wait to see what the social media futures will look like during the coming months and years. Some of the first and most meaningful glimpses will be coming from SNCR.

Added: 8th November 2010


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