The Future of the Social Web

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Prior to leaving Forrester to join Altimeter Group, Jeremiah Owyang, along with Josh Bernoff, Cynthia N. Pflaum, and Emily Bowen, published a report that attempted to bring the future of the Social Web into focus. If we viewed the content of his research as a social object, the conversations that would transpire could in fact expedite the development and implementation of the most valuable predictions and observations contained within.

The first part of the report observes the state of the Social Web and summarizes its direction:

Today’s social experience is disjointed because consumers have separate identities in each social network they visit. A simple set of technologies that enable a portable identity will soon empower consumers to bring their identities with them — transforming marketing, eCommerce, CRM, and advertising. IDs are just the beginning of this transformation, in which the Web will evolve step by step from separate social sites into a shared social experience. Consumers will rely on their peers as they make online decisions, whether or not brands choose to participate. Socially connected consumers will strengthen communities and shift power away from brands and CRM systems; eventually this will result in empowered communities defining the next generation of products.

In the report, Forrester documents the evolution and direction of the Social Web in several distinct stages:

1. The era of social relations – Starting with AOL and others in the mid-1990s, this era witnessed the connection of people through simple profiles and friending features that served as the foundation for online conversations through connections.

2. The era of social functionality – Evolving from friending to platforms that supported social interaction through applications and infrastructure, facilitating communities through relationships locked within the confines of a particular network.

As I’ve said before, social networks are jockeying to become our individual online OS – a Social OS essentially. Facebook released its Facebook Connect infrastructure to allow us to traverse the social web with our Facebook identity and relationships in tow, bridging our updates back to the Facebook News Feed to share with our social graph. This is a monumental furtherance as it starts to demonstrate the power of an interconnected activity and profile stream and network that makes the Social Web a much smaller place.

However, what we really need is a “Facebook Connect” within every site, not confined to or benefiting any one network. This will create the segue-way to the era of social colonization as predicted by Forrester.

This need is of particular, perhaps even consequential, interest to brands as they will spend an insurmountable amount of time, resources, and money trying to engage in noteworthy conversions across multiple networks of interest.

3. The era of social colonization – Deemed as the next stage of social evolution, which will emerge as soon as this year, tools such as OpenID and Facebook connect will enable individuals to freely journey from network to network. Forrester believes that we will be able to do so with our social graph in tact, but I believe that the initial phase of social colonization will make a general identity portable between networks. The portability of corresponding data, social objects, and friendships we maintain in each network becomes the Holy Grail.

For consumers, surfing the Web is no longer a lonely experience. Forrester foresees the release of new browsers and frictionless, uncomplicated technologies that allow people to truly surf the Web with friends or see what they’re doing in real-time.

Like we’re already witnessing or hearing (depending on your status on the  invitation list), Google Wave represents the ability to centralize and aggregate user activities and collaboration across the Web and across multiple platforms.

Forrester also observes that this era of colonization will leverage the recommendations of peers within the communities where individuals are active. Brands can capitalize on this behavior by instilling and engendering advocacy through direct engagement, blogger relations in the magic middle, and also via sponsored conversations.

This will serve as the bridge to social context.

4. The era of social context – Starting in 2010, social networks and sites will recognize the preferences of users, but more significantly, they will also recognize personal identities and relationships to customize the experience based on preference and behavior.

While this technology already powers, at varying levels, dedicated networks such as Trusted Opinion and Yelp, this functionality will be inherent to future networks using technology similar to Baynote to leverage the Wisdom of the Crowds as it inspires the personalization of content for each individual. Baynotes believes that the Web, and sites in particular, can learn from collective intelligence to improve the experience based on the behavior of crowds over individuals.

In the near future, much of the content will be automated, but will still rely on the explicit express of individuals to improve the experience. As Forrester notes, “Portable IDs mean you’ll be able to flip a switch to tell Nike you’re a woman who runs 12 miles a week and immediately see the shoes that are best for you — along with input from experiences of your running buddies.”

I believe that the combination of semantic and collective intelligence systems will improve the content and overall interaction within sites and social networks over time.

5. The era of social commerce – In 2011 – 2012, social networks will eclipse corporate Web sites and CRM systems. Forrester believes that communities will become a driving force for innovation and as such, companies will be forced to formally cater to communities, signifying the trading of power towards connected customers.

The Dawn of SRM

While Forrester predicts the era of Social Commerce, the future of the social Web as I see it, starts to embrace a corporate philosophy and supporting infrastructure that migrates away from CRM and even sCRM to one of Social Relationship Management or SRM. This will usher in the fifth era as observed by Forrester. And, SRM is also acutely cognizant of and in harmony with VRM (Vendor Relationship Management). Championed by Doc Searls, Chris Carfi, among others, VRM is the opposite of CRM, capsizing the concept of talking at or marketing to customers and shifting the balance of power in relationships from vendors to consumers. As such, systems are created to empower consumer participation and sentiment and improve products and services with every engagement.

While some believe that relationships aren’t technically manageable, in the world of business and a vibrant and influential social Web, it is not a question. And for all intents and purposes, they’re still personable.

The Social Web is distributing influence beyond the customer landscape, allocating authority amongst stakeholders, prospects, advocates, decision makers, and peers. SRM recognizes that whether someone recommended a product, purchased a product, or simply recognized it publicly, in the end, each makes an impact on behavior at varying levels.

Therefore customers are now merely part of a larger equation that also balances vendors, experts, partners, and other authorities. In the realm of SRM, influence is distributed and it is recognizes wherever and however it takes shape.

SRM is a doctrine aligned with a humanized business strategy and supporting technology infrastructure and platform. SRM recognizes that all people, no matter what system they use, are equal. It represents a wider scope of active listening and participation across the full spectrum of influence mapped to specific department representatives within the organization using various lenses for which to identify individuals where and how they interact.

From Adoption to Sophistication, No Social Network is an Island

Forrester recognizes that the past five years of Social Media evolution have focused on growth and adoption, but anticipates that the next stage of advancement  is dedicated to improving social functionality. I would also add personalization and portability. The biggest opportunity for the expansion of social networks is to build bridges between these isolated islands to deliver a more fulfilling, meaningful and productive experience. As I see it, we will start to see a the social web not as a collection of distributed islands, but as one greater collective better known as a human network – a contextual and relationship-based network that consists of like-minded individuals no matter where their profile resides.

In the near-term, the future of the Social Web starts with our online identity.

Whereas in Social Media, content is still king, in the business of social networking, data is its currency. I believe that everything starts with empowering the individual with the ability to host one secure profile/identify online that would serve existing and emerging social networks across the Web. OpenID, for example, provides central and protect login credentials for users, connecting identities to other third-part networks including Google, PayPal, AOL, MySpace, among others. Perhaps the future lies with making data mobile while still providing value to the economics of social networks. DataPortability.org is working with some of the most renowned networks to enable users to bring their identity, friends, conversations, files and histories with them, without having to manually add them to each new service. Each of the services we choose to use can draw on this information relevant to the context within each network. As our experiences and connections accumulate and change corresponding data, this information will update on other sites and services if permitted, without having to revisit others to re-enter or re-create it.

The future of the Social Web must begin with data portability to accelerate proliferation throughout Roger’s Diffusion of Innovation adoption system. The lack of it might serve as either the “chasm” that hinders mainstream adoption or the monopolization of user data by a few dominant players.

How do you envision the future of the Social Web?

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  • DanielPBingham

    Great post Brian. I think that for many corporations, the biggest change will be felt when corporate participation in social media shifts from opt-in participation, where companies choose whether to make their sites social and to participate in social networks, to a situation where consumers are able to make a company’s site social at the browser level where the company has no control. This has started already but will become the general experience in the era of social context.

    I call it asymmetric social media – similar to asymmetric warfare where insurgents use an opponent’s own infrastructure and institutions as a platform to launch attacks – social media technologies will allow users to use a company’s own web properties as a platform to have discussions, express opinions about the company and engage others.

    I think Google Sidewiki is just the start, since it allows other (random) people to comment on any webpage. Once you are able to interact with your own circle of online relationships across any website the power and influence of this technology will grow exponentially.

    I have found that many companies are able to ignore social media as long as it stays confined within the respective social networks, but when social communities set up camp on their own corporate websites there is going to be a rude awakening in many boardrooms.

    I wrote a white paper on this dynamic here: http://mhgroupcom.com/asymmetric-communications/

    I would be interested to get your thoughts.

    • Mark

      There are different kinds of audiences. Active ones, as you've identified, who want to engage in discussions, but also more passive ones who just share the content that interests them.

      Asymmetric or not, I think that the future of the social web is in understanding how this content diffuses through the various ecosystems that surround brands, and managing that to focus marketing efforts. I can use bit.ly to see some of how the content I share is proliferating, but there really aren't many tools for site owners and advertisers to track their content and whether key influencers are sharing it (and how). There is http://www.tweetiator.com for twitter but nothing out there for FaceBook et al.

    • DanielPBingham

      I think the behavior of the passive audiences is more interesting, because there are so many more of them. When they don't have to go to Facebook or Twitter to see the dialogue and content sharing happening around a brand, but have this content pushed to them automatically on the company's own website through technologies like SideWiki – this is when the conversations and content become a whole lot more important to a lot of brands.

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Take a look at what Baynote is working on Daniel…would like your thoughts.

    • DanielPBingham

      Brian, Baynote's technology looks very interesting – is this the technology Amazon.com uses? I know I have bought a number of products based on the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” suggestions.

      I imagine their next step is to include information from the user's so-called social circle in the suggestions, like the way Google's Social Search adds to search results. As I mentioned in my previous comment, I think the big leap forward will be the shift from being informed that “strangers who may be like me” took this action to “my social circle” took this action. I would actually like to see both sets of information – where the masses and my social circle agree is where I am really going to pay attention as a consumer.

    • http://twitter.com/ggruber66 ggruber66

      Daniel, I was listening to a podcast the other day and an author (maybe Bill Simmons hawking “The Book of Basketball”) talking about Amazon and they 'let slip' that the “Customers Who Bought…” links are actually paid ad sponsorships, not a complex algorithm. A little disappointing and feels kind of slimy.

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Daniel, very interesting insights…lends very well to Searls' VRM movement…will read the whitepaper. Sounds good.

  • http://scalableintimacy.com Mike Troiano

    Great post, Brian. I've been a champion for the SRM cause for a while now, and continue to beleive it's where this all goes.

    A few of us in Boston had a discussion about the future of the social web at Wednesday's MITX event, where I suggested it would be defined by three things:

    1. The shift from destination-based to distributed social network availability, as stated in the Forrester work.
    2. The increasing application of our social networks as a filter for the information onslaught around us, as we saw in the launch of Google's Social Search product this week, and…
    3. As a result of the above – a dramatic shift from focus on the quantity of one's social network reach to a focus on the quality of one's social network connections.

    After reflecting on this I unfollowed 10,000 people in Twitter last week, cutting my bot traffic by about 95%, and leaving a core group of people whom I “know,” and who's opinions I genuinely value. While it's cost me about 20% of my own followers, I find myself getting a lot more out of Twitter as a result, and eager to apply the implicit or explicit preferences of that group to my online experiences.

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Mike, you are right on with your vision…as you see, I have some thoughts here that extend the idea of aggregation, syndication, filtering/intelligence and also portability. Very interesting times ahead…

  • http://www.facebook.com/denis.vanchestein Denis Paul Van Chestein

    Wow. Great article. I'll have to get back to you about my vision of the Future of Social Media or Social Web but two things come to mind rapidly. First, I have a problem with mixing “semantic” and “collective intelligence” as the backbone of a system providing appropriate content for social interactions. Appropriate content within the context of a purchase experience, maybe certainly not a truly and fully satisfying social experience !!! I don't think collecting social data about “semantic” and “collective intelligence” will guarantee creativity; hence, where and how to ensure the renewal of the brand experience? I believe humans will still be needed to renew the brand experience and keep brands appealing.

    Second, I have a major problem with a social OS that brings along all of my social data, mysocial graph and consumer behavior, etc.; I would be much more into a personal social OS that let me decide what data I want to push out to whatever social platform I am visiting!!!

  • http://twitter.com/kasparminosiant Kaspar Minosiants

    3. The era of social colonization – it'd be nice to be in a colony of people with the same interest but in the same time I think it would narrow my view and bring the filling that nothing else exist . The most interesting thing would be at the intersection of different colonies . I't be nice to have a button “Go to completely different colony” LOL

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/leijstrom Hans Leijström

    Thanks Brian for a great post! I think the global community will need to solve the identity dilemma. To make this comment, I used one of my Twitter accounts. But, I could have used FB or Disqus as well. Hijacking of brands calls for verification, people die, we have still many voices without faces etc. Brian, please let me hear what you think will happen in the future?

  • http://twitter.com/Brandon101 Brandon Sutton

    Excellent post Brian. I can imagine the talks on identity portability are as complicated and challenging as the discussions on carbon emissions and climate change are with global nations. We're in a situation now where there are a few really big players that control most of the data, and to your point this is a major risk of widespread adoption of this concept. This discussion has been floating around for a few years now, but we're still not there. In fact, I'd argue that with Facebook Connect, we are actually moving further away from true identity portability. That is, unless Facebook joins forces with OpenID, or something along those lines. Any predictions on how this will happen?

    Thanks for the post. It's very inspiring.

  • http://humanvoice.wordpress.com tomob

    Hi Brian:

    Nice post – I agree that SRM is a great place to point to for the corporate ==> person relationship – and is consistent with the VRM thinking.

    Would be great to see a few large organizations start to implement. I guess that is what Altimeter and Dachis are about.

    TO'B

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  • http://twitter.com/goodwinners goodwinners

    Thank you for interesting material !!!

  • http://uservoice.com marcusnelson

    Great post Brian –
    Reading these comments, I'd have to agree with Brandon Sutton in that Facebook is the 800 lb. Gorilla leading the way, but they are far from being a Switzerland of identity management. There needs to be an intermediary that manages this identity – OpenID is close (and getting better), but still far from being widely accepted as the platform of Identification management.

    A true SRM should (would) be an agnostic profile service that the end-user controls. Let them manage and release data points to whomever & wherever they decide. That'd be the killer social app.

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Hey Marcus, indeed…that's a bit of VRM and SR. The power of identity and connections should reside with the user…on the other side, SRM is also a philosophy and tech platform for improving experiences and adapting to market evolution.

    • http://twitter.com/blerten Barney Lerten

      Deep thoughts for a 'simple reporter' to grasp, but … it's why I'm using Seesmic, to try to see if my aging brain can adequately multi-task across several (work/home, Twitter/Facebook) accounts. Simpler the better, I agree. I've been wrestling for months with sign-in conflicts between our TV station's WorldNow Website and the third-party bolt-on JS-Kit comment system (can't seem to require authentication without shutting the door accidentally to most/all comments – and can't sign in from home even with JS-Kit's help.)
      Single sign-on, universal conversation API – that's the discussion I was having with others as Sidewiki launched, but it seems not to be getting a lot of buzz/traction (and some opposition.)
      Then there's the idea of WHOSE platform becomes universal. I've hit a variant of this problem with the fact that the Website I help run somehow blocks being logged in via Google Accounts (so I can't use Sidewiki there or at a few other sites), and it's not a Google problem because the Windows Live sign-in also is blocked – even when I'm logged in on other tabs. And it's not a PC problem because I see it across numerous PCs.
      In other words, some piece of code is blocking that log-in presumably. If someone likes one social Web/platform offering over others, or doesn't like them at all, could they block access like this? Does make me wonder if the global social Web system would have so many holes in it – intentionally or othewise – so as to make it hard to universalize (is that a word?;-)

    • http://twitter.com/blerten Barney Lerten

      Oh, and to give you an idea of the resistance I face, we now have a huge online community of commenters, mainly anonymous, at our Website. But they can only post comments on local stories – WorldNow scratched their head on why I'd want to let our visitors comment on national stories. Sigh.

      It's like I'm in a WWI foxhole, and as the bullets fly and we gain muddy ground by inches, I see an ELO-colored spaceship flying overhead. I keep pointing… they keep shooting and slipping in the mud;-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/stevencantrell Steve Cantrell

    Great post… lots to think about. If my 4 museums have vibrant, engaged FaceBook communities and rank high on Google, with this upcoming freedom of movement, do I even need to start a museum blog (covering all 4 museums) -?

  • kitson

    Brian:

    Nicely done.
    A solid post revisiting Jeremiah's report — we covered it at the time, and ran an adapted version in our social media issue in June. http://sn.im/0609tp

    That issue was all about where we go from here in social media — an effort reflected primarily in our collaborative stab at a Social Media Maturity Model (which appeared in print) and our #303030 Project, where that Model was dissected over 30 days by 30 different analysts, vendors, thought leaders, bloggers, etc.).

    We haven't closed the loop on the #303030 Project just yet — would love to either mirror this post or give you a chance to declaim from a different rooftop for a change.
    You can check out the Maturity Model here: http://sn.im/smmm09
    And the #303030 Project begins here: http://sn.im/303030-0601

    Would love to bat around ideas anytime — the plan is to have an updated version in the Jun2010 issue.
    j.
    @kitson
    @CRM
    @destinationCRM

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Love this idea! Can we take this to DM or email? Thank you!

  • http://beyondthebuzz.wordpress.com Andrea Ong Pietkiewicz

    @marcusnelson that killer app of which you speak would obviate, for instance, the fact that even to comment on a blog post, we're faced, first of all, with choices to make about how or whether we want to “control-panel” (for lack of a better analogy) our digital conversational trail: provide identification in each instance or login to Disqus or Twitter or FB….<name your soc net>.

    I'm not up-to-speed on what OpenID is up to, but I agree that the future of the digital society has to include a single sign-in experience to enable individuals to move from one space to seamlessly.

    Beyond a seamless experience, however, I suspect that having visibility into our online activities will jolt many into being more aware of their digital footprints. Faced with a dashboard tracking our digital interactions, perhaps we may become more conscious of our digital broadcasts and be more protective of our privacy.

  • http://www.charlierobinson.blogspot.com charlierobinson

    excellent article and comments… thanks for the thoughts xc

  • http://www.rick.dk Torben Rick

    Great article – Thanks.

    Torben Rick

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  • http://blog.urbanhorizon.com Andrew J Scott

    Great post Brian!

    The technical challenges of intelligently processing the (un)natural language which social interactions produce is huge. I say “un”natural as tweets, for example, do not adhere to regular conversation or language practises.

    The coming together of mutiple IDs is something we've all been waiting for for a while and Facebook connect is largely beginning to succeed where the geeky easily misunderstood OpenID did not.

    Once that happens the question of personalisation remains. “Crowd sourcing” (a dubious term at best) is not enough. Analysis of mass habits goes some way to provide a basic filtering of content (i.e. forms of collaborative filtering) but trust networks and reputation engines based upon taste and past behaviour are the future (although admittedly, I'm bias http://blog.rummble.com/whatisrummble/ ) as only they provide a real level of personalised filtering beyond the sentiment of the crowd.

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  • jbernoff

    Brian, since the report was published, I've frankly been disappointed in the slow progress towards a common ID.

    What can we do to accelerate this? Because the Web is fragmenting due to separate identities, which frankly makes this future hard to get to.

    • Brian Anderson

      I agree Josh and would be very interested in marketers comments on what they are doing to push the boundaries…

      (the other) Brian

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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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