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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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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