The Year of the Dragon is shaping up as a huge year for social media adopters and users. Oliver Woods gives us his tips on where the trends are taking us.
Once the domain of reality-starved geeks and college students, social media has become our age’s most revolutionary forms of human organisation and communication. Did you know that Japanese fishermen use Twitter and social shopping sites to sell their daily catch? Or that you can now watch the Coen Brothers’ cinematic magnum opus, the Big Lebowski, entirely on Facebook?
From launching revolutions to hustling soap powder, social media has become without a doubt the biggest development in communication culture since radio, television and the early days of the Internet. 2012 will complete the transition of social from technological novelty to human necessity.
The world’s digital landscape has emerged from a 2011 that was utterly dominated by Facebook. The production of a big-budget, high profile Hollywood film about the network shows how important it has become in modern culture. Furthermore, Facebook consolidated its global base of members, surpassing 800 million on the back of aggressive growth in markets across Asia and the Middle East. Finally, last year saw the full scale adoption of social in marketing budgets and communications plans: businesses finally realised necessity to engage with customers through social – and in the case of huge global firms like P&G, Samsung and Unilever, they chose Facebook.
But, with a confused economic climate, a better understanding of social media by a broad cross-section of society and a global shift in power away from the West, 2012 is going to be a bit different. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll run you through what I think the Year of the Dragon will deliver for us socially.
Anonymity is dead… Long live privacy!
We all know that person who refuses to join Facebook. You know the one: the guy who always complains he’s never invited to house parties because he misses the Facebook Event invite. Or maybe your neurotic high school mate who untags themselves in every photo that is ever taken of them on Facebook.
Fortunately, as you may have noticed, these social luddites are being culled in a digital Darwinian social struggle of epic proportions. The numbers don’t lie: Facebook is nearly at a billion users, Google is doing everything it can to drive Google+ and YouTube has replaced iTunes for a whole generation, reaching more than 60% of the online population in markets like Singapore. In the context of such radical growth of social communities, the idea of preserving total anonymity is being replaced by more relative notions – privacy, control, ‘circles’, etc. – that show the cultural changes that are being caused by technology globally across societies.
Social involvement has gone from being a binary decision to opt in or opt out to something resembling a continuum of necessity. People’s comfort with revealing their lives to others has tremendously increased, helped by much greater awareness of privacy and improved settings provided by social websites. Depressingly for the cruel amongst us, emerging social rules and new sensitive privacy settings are combining to halt the trend of people baring the ups and downs of their lives through drunken tweets and emotional Tumblr posts. The tremendous power of peer pressure, the lost changes of social interaction and improving ability to regulate one’s digital appearance are a persuasive cocktail, and throughout 2012 it will certainly compel all but the hardest core resisters to sign-up to one social network or another.
Workers of the world, you have nothing to lose but your Twitter accounts!
Social media has been utilised by revolutionaries in Egypt, Malaysia and Iran. US President Barack Obama used digital and social technologies as a critical tool in his arsenal in his election campaign. Sadly, for those hoping emerging digital media technologies will accelerate reform, accountability and revolution should be concerned with what 2012 will deliver.
Karl Marx’s famously said that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. With business and political elites rapidly adopting how these tools worked, despite initial resistance, they now are learning to communicate effectively on platforms like Facebook, Twitter & YouTube.
Indeed, the notion of shutting down social media access is becoming unfashionable amongst even the most authoritarian of governments. The emerging trend in Asia-Pacific is a blend of engagement, restriction and tracking. Governments throughout the Asia-Pacific region now use analytics and data mining tools to track social media activity of dissidents, ordinary citizens and general trends to improve the strength of election campaigns, manage political crises and identify and track down dissidents and activists.
In the realm of engagement, there are examples aplenty of political parties and business leaders using social to entrench their positions. Malaysia’s governing Barisan Nasional coalition has put prime emphasis on social engagement, with Prime Minister Najib Razak recently using Facebook to reach out to a younger Chinese constituency that his party has traditionally struggled with. In the realm of business, AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes and the global media magnate Rupert Murdoch both maintain highly active Twitter accounts while the former Google China President Li Kaifu and Microsoft founder Bill Gates both use Sina weibo (a mainland China-based microblog service).
While social media will doubtlessly remain a powerful tool in any political organiser’s arsenal, it goes without saying that these new developments – driven by a fear amongst political and business elites that they could be the next victims of an uprising or smear campaign – will reduce the potential around the revolutionary potential of digital technology. Beware what you say online is a tired cliché. But more than ever before, your utterances – even those that you think are private and to your own social networks – are being analysed and processed by people who may not be all too pleased with what you are saying.
Content discovery and sharing
Consumers are spending more time than ever before consuming content through social media. YouTube claim that 150 years of their videos “are watched every day on Facebook” and that “every minute more than 500 tweets contain YouTube links”. This tremendous scale of consumption is growing at a breakneck rate, revealing our innate human love of sharing: whether it is the great videos you find trawling online late at night, wonderful stories of emotion and tragedy you pore over for hours on blogs, or inspiring art and images.
Until now, however, discovering content has been hard. In the old days, with social networks like Bebo and MySpace, it was nearly impossible to search within their impenetrable depths. Furthermore, even newer networks like Facebook did not provide a good user experience to quickly absorb large amounts of information and easily share it with friends. Anyone who has used the internal search engines of all social networks – notably Twitter’s obnoxiously named ‘Advanced Search’ – know they are an insult to the intelligence of their users.
Fortunately, this is changing. 2012 is going to be the year that social and content truly become one. Facebook and Google are currently working hard to improve what is probably the weakest part of both their services – social search – and are quickly iterating new changes to improve user experience around discovery of things that are relevant and targeted to users. While the motives behind Google’s deeper integration of YouTube and Google+ into search are not noble, the unintentional consequence of their actions is that Facebook and Twitter now are under tremendous pressure to improve their own content discovery and sharing functions.
Predictably, such developments will lead to a major public firestorms around privacy. Untagged Facebook photos of you drunkenly dancing at your office party may well emerge proudly into the public domain in search engines. But the benefits of true social search will be tremendous: finding content that suits you, tailored to your social graph data, will allow us to find stuff that we like faster and with less friction.
Aside from Google, the emergence of Pinterest, one of the newest additions to the stable of social sites, is a wonderful phenomenon that promotes the sharing of content with ‘Likes’ and ‘Pins’. It’s deep integration into Facebook using the latter’s new Profile features is pretty cool, and its rapid uptake in recent months demonstrates the human desire for easier discovery and sharing of content.
Under all of our noses, data and statistics have suddenly become fashionable. There is a huge emergent culture of infographics – the distillation of complex data sets into shareable, beautiful graphics. Hipsters on Tumblr love sharing ironic mosaics comparing beards, whereas self-styled radicals create intricate infographics validating their politics.
Even more critically, data is becoming very profitable. Big companies are getting serious about what is called ‘big data’: huge datasets rich with valuable insights that can’t easily be processed by humans or ordinary machine processing. For companies not on huge scale, social media monitoring will continue to grow in importance for tracking the views of customers, researching marketplaces and identifying opportunities for new business. Expect over the coming year to see knowledge of tools like Meltwater Buzz, Radian6 and SM2 to start entering CV requirements in job advertisements outside of social media.
Broadly speaking, 2012 will be another year on the path of ‘mainstreaming’ of the tools and networks we’ve grown to know and love. Science and analytics will increasingly underlie how marketers and consumers use channels, moving away from intuition and guesstimates. More people are going to use social media and are going to go back to it more frequently. More companies will be even more creative with how they create experiences for their customers. Governments will get better at tracking your frustrations and passions that you think you are privately expressing to networks of friends. And content buried deep within social networks will be exposed to the cold, hard light of search engine crawlers – hopefully finding us great music and movies that match our tastes without us having to go out of our way to discover it. I wish all the readers of this article a prosperous and happy New Year, and I hope that you continue to push the boundaries of the usage of social media during this very auspicious Year of the Dragon!