What’s going to happen to social media in 2012?

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Memeburn asked me to give my thoughts on trends in social media for 2012. I had a look around to see what other people were saying and discovered that the Net is jam-packed with predictions for the coming year, so writing this article feels a bit like I’m pissing in a river and watching it rise. While many writers are posting about how Facebook will cross the 1-billion user mark or Facebook will decline in popularity, I’m more interested in global implications of social media technologies in general. In this article, I will look at how social media is changing things outside of itself, and how the technology market is likely to react to it in the coming year.

Social media and the law

As the big social networks battle for dominance, they realise that in order to provide an increasing number of competitive services to their user-bases they need to gather ever larger amounts of personal data about their users. Furthermore, they want to ensure the authenticity of that data as much as possible, as evidenced by Google’s early attempts at enforcing a Real Name Policy toward the beginning of the year. Social network operators also understand that in order to be profitable they need to be able to connect marketeers with their user-bases as closely as possible. From a marketing perspective, user data is a gold mine.

Around the middle of 2011 a German law student opened a case against Facebook for its violation of European legislation concerning the data that it stores about its end users. You can follow his investigation on the Europe vs Facebook website. This case marks the beginning of a trend that I expect that we will see more of in the coming year. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the social networking sites are loathe to give users real control over data which identifies them and their activities. I believe that in 2012 we will see more legislation surrounding user-data governance. If not in favour of end-users having control over their data, certainly world governments are already clamouring to get more control over what happens within social media.

But data governance isn’t everything. Toward the end of this year, we have seen more legislation from around the world controlling what companies and end-users can and can’t do within their social networks. For instance, we’ve seen legislation change in the US, to allow Netflix to integrate with Facebook and we’ve seen laws appearing governing whether teachers are able to connect to students or not.

Perhaps the biggest trend that we will see around social media in 2012 will be legislative, as governments try to get more of a handle on a beast that reaches beyond all borders. This is going to complicate how social networks operate on a global scale.

Ever weaker security

You might have noticed that now you login to a whole load of online services using Facebook or Google authentication services. In fact, even Memeburn offers this as an option if you want to leave a comment. That’s all thanks to a technology called OpenID, which enables Single Sign-On across web applications. Its really convenient, because it means that you only have to remember one or two passwords for a whole range of sites. It also means that you can change your password in one place, and that’s all you have to do. On top of that it the added security in knowing that your own trusted provider has your account information, and some site that you don’t really know doesn’t keep any of your passwords. But there is a big downside to all of this. Its similar to using one password to access many different sites. If somebody compromises your Facebook account, they now have access to a huge range of additional online services and account information that you might use.

OpenID also issued a warning earlier this year announcing that there was a vulnerability in its Attribute Exchange technology, which allows websites to share personal identity information with an OpenID provider. As more services take advantage of the convenience of Single Sign-On provided through OpenID, it is going to come under the full scrutiny of the hacking community as the prime means to compromise user security. But even if OpenID holds up, we will see more focus on the big social network providers as the ultimate weakest link in the chain. Expect more phishing scams centered on your favourite social media sites.

Aggregation, convergence, filtering

Remember ICQ? Or did you sign-up with MSN? Are you using Google Chat? Skype? Facebook Chat? The number of IM platforms out there are endless, but they’ve been around for quite some time and nowadays either your phone or some generic messaging application just aggregates all of your accounts into one environment. That’s pretty handy, because while I keep trying to convince my friends that Skype is awful and that there are a whole range of competitive alternatives out there, they’re taking an awfully long time to move. Having all of my IM accounts aggregated means that I don’t have to run 20 different applications at the same time. Social Media is pretty similar. You’ve got your MySpace account. Um, scrap that. Let me start again. You’ve got Facebook, Google+, LastFM, Twitter, Skype and who knows what other accounts out there that connect you to different people and different services. Its a headache trying to keep on top of everything. The killer applications in 2012 will be the ones that manage to provide adequate integration and aggregation of data from different social networking accounts.

There is an alternative approach, and its the one that seems to be the trend of the day. Convergence. Social media platforms are desperately trying to cover every last base so that you don’t have to use any other external services. In some cases, agreements are being signed between different platforms that are starting to shape the future of online activity. This year, Facebook and Skype hooked up.

On the other hand, the goliath of all online activity, Google, simply rolled out their own VOIP services, and then connected up all of the many different services that they had on offer (such as Picasa, Gmail etc) so that you probably don’t need to look anywhere else to find other online services. Convergence is interesting, because while it provides so much convenience, the truth is that there is always going to be that one new service out there that is designed by somebody else. In the end, I believe that only Google can win the convergence game, because it already has so many mainstream online services under its banner. Perhaps 2012 will see ever increasing connections between these online services.

That’s part of the trouble with Social Media. When it started out, it was pretty simple. You logged into an account to check out a particular thing, or to chat to a few friends, or to check out your photos and things. I remember when the web was a bit like that. Then eCommerce took off, and the web started getting crowded. Social Media offered some respite from a space where it was getting difficult to find what you were really looking for. As businesses clamour for a slice of social pie, and as services start to converge you start to find that the original site that you logged into to has become somewhat overwhelming. Applications that can help to filter this information and service overload within the social media space, in order to make it more digestable are bound to start appearing within the next few months. In a sense, what we may actually be after is the antithesis of convergence.

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