If you work in social media, or indeed anywhere near it, you can't help but notice a nervousness about where the industry is heading, fuelled in part by Facebook's dodgy IPO performance and inability to fully own mobile. This does not mean that social media is dead, but rather that it is only arriving. A slowing down of the frenetic approach that brands have taken towards social media up until this point is good.
If social media is to survive and to continue to form a part of brands' marketing and business plans, then we need to move away from seeing it solely as the place for fun and quirky campaigns that ultimately have little lasting value. Instead, we need to now take a measured approach, having fully understood (or at least begun to understand) what it can and can't do.
The key to this is understanding what we mean when we say social media. While some may decry Facebook and foresee an early death, social media does not begin and end with the 'F' word. When we look at emerging areas such as big data and mobile platforms, these often fall under the remit of social media as a natural extension and layering of social technologies.
It's this focus on technology that is fundamental to social media's true arrival. It is no longer about picking a social platform and doing something fun on it, but focusing on emerging technologies that can influence and inform your business and approaching these with our learnings from social up until now.
Paul Doleman recently wrote an insightful article titled 'Social media is finished.' But rather than claiming that social media as a whole is finished, he made the point that "the foundations of social media have been laid, the major architectural pieces are in place," and that "we won't see the emergence of another fundamental piece of the social jigsaw." He backed up his argument with the idea of layering - that we are witnessing iterations of social layers in emerging tech - but that fundamentally social media is 'done' when it comes to creating new foundations.
And this is exactly why social media is far from finished. Although the fundamentals of how we understand and approach it mightn't change, we are only now beginning to see the outcome of these social layers; only really beginning to see what societal shifts these layers can support and the instigating role social media can take in modern society. Having successfully facilitated concepts such as collaboration, crowd-sourcing, individuals as media, two-way communications and real-time information, we are now ready to really experiment with these and see what we can achieve. This applies for brands as much as it does for societies as a whole.
Consider the implications for open data and data exchange for third world communities, boosted by mobile technology, and we can begin to understand what role social media can take in our societies today. This is powerful stuff, possible only because of the (slightly) matured state social media is reaching now.
A perhaps overused analogy when it comes to social media is the printing press. But it is an important one as both will, over time, have played equally impactful, societal-shifting roles in the evolution of communication. When the printing press first emerged it was just a 'thing,' a physical means to reproduce written material.
That is fundamentally what it was. What it did however, is quite another story.
Looking beyond the physical means of the printing press, the effect it had on society was significant because of the type of communications it facilitated. During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, the printing press played a pivotal role in the distribution of Reformation works by Protestants and anti-Reformation works of the Roman Catholics. Without these written materials being widely available, it would have been difficult to obtain the word of mouth and spread of information that was key to the movement. Yet, this only came out decades after the printing press itself was invented. The effect of the medium took years to materialise and indeed is continuing to develop today.
It is not difficult to see the similarities between the printing press and social media. Both facilitate communication which have/had ultimately challenged the status quo of the spread and access to information. The effects of social media have only begun to emerge, but we're entering an era now where new generations are 'social natives', who will have developed a more innate understanding of the power of social media than we ever could have as new adopters. This is where it gets exciting.
Collaboration Between Platforms
Social media's arrival is also evident in that instigator of social communication: Social networks. As an industry this is maturing. We are seeing social players develop into real businesses, arriving onto the stock market and having to prove themselves as viable components of our economy. With this comes a maturity in how these services run themselves as businesses. While we're used to witnessing a closed approach from Facebook when it comes to platform developments, we can now see a more mature business develop with increased collaboration with other services.
Facebook showed its aggression with working with other platforms through the many acquisitions it made earlier this year. Five mobile acquisitions in the space of a few weeks - topped off nicely when it bought Instagram for over $1 billion - and with new functionality in the platform, it's opening up new possibilities by collaborating with other technology providers, such as its recent partnership with Bango to enable mobile payments for goods. Now that we're seeing the very platforms that enabled collaboration beginning to collaborate themselves, it shows the social industry is maturing and that the time for play is over.
Evolution Of The Platform
A fundamental part of this maturation is the social platforms beginning to understand the role that they play. It took a long time for brands to figure out what a site like Twitter could actually be used for. Was it just the place to share some fun hashtag competitions, or could it instead form a fundamental part of the business, enabling a change in customer communications and customer service that means a new way of communicating with stakeholders? The latter is, hopefully, being realised in businesses right now. But just as brands and marketers are figuring out these sites, so are the sites themselves. We can see this clearly with Twitter who only this year has begun to move on from being simply a platform where information is shared, to taking an editorial role with the spread of that information.
It's now moving into content 'hubs', with two prominent examples being the Euros and the Olympics. These consisted of content that Twitter's editorial team deemed to be the most relevant and up-to-date, allowing audiences to effectively filter through the noise.
This shows a changing role for Twitter, becoming more of a media brand than a platform or technical solution for sharing information. Overall, it shows the industry maturing as we see the different roles that social media can play.