Social networking: 4 trends you need to know about

In early 2010, Facebook passed Google in website traffic. This is astonishing because Google has been the greatest growth story of all time. How could this be? What is fundamentally driving this behaviour? And what are the implications moving forward?

U.S. Website Traffic, percentage of Total Visitors

(Source: The Economist, Dec. 2, 2010)

What distinguishes mammals from other animals is our need for true social interaction. Human beings are not wired to be alone. The most severe punishment meted out in prison is solitary confinement. And the internet and social networking have enabled human beings to exploit our need for community.

For many years pundits searched for the “killer app” that would cause the internet to take off. Every year during the late 1980’s was heralded as “The Year of the Internet”. The first killer app turned out to be the world wide web and its access to a world of information. But along with access to information, we have an even deeper need for human connection. The more important killer app for the internet has been social networking.

The growth in social networking sites has been phenomenal. Morgan Stanley reported in December 2009 that globally time spent on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter increased 82% over the previous year. Three-quarters of the total internet audience visited a social networking site in December, according to comScore. So it isn’t just teenagers sharing photos of last weekend’s wild party. 94% of US 18-34 year-olds use a social networking site, but so do 67% of 45-54 year-olds, and 55% of those 55+.

Social Network User Growth

(Source: Morgan Stanley)

We’re seeing a shift in the way people spend their time online. We used to live in an online world of the “document web”. Authorities published articles and they were available on the web. The publisher had the power and the legitimacy. Now we are in an era of the “social web”, where the conversations around a story are often more interesting than the story itself. Blogs and comments on blogs can be more influential than published content. It’s about people connecting to each other online.

Although the technology has changed, what people do with the new technology is strongly influenced by stable human behaviors. We need to understand what is motivating people.

This growth in online social networking growth is the extension of a number of general social trends that strategic consultancy Cheskin Added Value has observed. Each trend has implications for the future of social computing.

Trend #1: Virtual is real

Virtual presence has become just as real, if not more so, than the physical world. The virtual world provides real social interaction.

Anyone who has an 8-14 year-old child is probably familiar with the child saying he is playing with his friend so-and-so, only to walk into the room and find him alone holding his smartphone or working his videogame controller, playing online with his friend.

Improvements in social networking and mobile computing platforms, such as iPhone and Android phones, are fundamentally changing the ways people communicate with each other. Instead of talking, people are using their mobile phones more and more to text or to access Facebook. The Economist reported that in 2002 the average Japanese mobile user spoke on his phone for 181 minutes each month. By early 2009 that had fallen to 133 minutes. Communities or friends are no longer dependent on geographical proximity, but can socialize in a meaningful way online.

Social groups that mirror real world relationships: The one-size-fits-all current Facebook-type network will decline. We’ll have networks of college friends, real personal friends, personal acquaintances, business contacts, fellow book lovers, Zynga game players, neighbours, foodies, etc. And we won’t have to log into multiple different networks with different rules to make this possible. People don’t have one identity. We act differently with different people. So why have only one group of friends or one profile? People’s intended audience for social network communications are usually a small subset of all their friends.

Ability to have real conversations in social networks: Social networks need to support side conversations and enable conversational threads with a smaller number of people. We’ll have networks that have vibrant conversations, the way FriendFeed used to. Twitter’s 140 character limit doesn’t work well for real conversations and it’s hard to follow a conversational thread.

Closing in on the holy grail of getting information only from those you trust: This was the original promise of social search – you would be able to take advantage of only the appropriate social subgroup to get answers to questions, receive suggestions, and trade information.

If you wanted a restaurant recommendation, you wouldn’t need to go to Zagat, which accepts anyone’s ratings, but could look only at the recommendations of other foodies. As an example, Klout is a service that tracks the influence of individuals in social networks. It can be imported into other products (e.g. StockTwits) where you really want to know more about the person giving you advice.

Trend #2: Growth in the amount of data produced

The internet has created a system where it does not cost anything to produce data. The average consumer has access to easy-to-use tools that allow him to contribute to the digital universe. YouTube now showcases 35 hours of video content every minute, up from about 6 hours in 2007.


Reduction of information overload: The digital revolution promised to empower us by putting the world at our fingertips. But instead we are drowning in information. Social networking should reduce information overload, not add to it. Even if you carefully control who you follow or “friend”, it’s hard to reduce the amount of input to something you can keep up with. You have to cut off whole people, rather than narrowing their posts to the topics you want to hear about.

With Facebook Connect and other tools, publishers are letting you see what your friends are reading/watching/listening to. But it requires more than recommendations from your “social graph”, because right now that social graph is way too broad. We need better filters by topic and source. Stumbleupon, “a discovery engine that finds the best of the web, recommended just for you”, is an example of a first step in this direction. Human filters may prove to be the best way to pull relevant information out of the maelstrom.

You can trust that your network will surface important news and not miss anything because the people you follow will repeat what is important, thus reducing information overload by reducing the number of information sources you need to monitor.

Undermining of the authority model of news sources: Proprietary channels (newspapers, magazines, TV networks) are no longer the only game in town. In fact, circulation and viewership are plunging. Newsweek Magazine was just sold for US$1. Immediate posts provide more up-to-the-minute information. The latest information was available on the web about Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti when official sources had little or old information. Community has become key.

Integration of different social networks: You’ll be able to easily track and find posts across different networks and email services. Right now, if you communicate with people on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, phone texts, work email, and personal email, it’s hard to remember which service you need to respond to in order to get back to someone.

Emergence of non-text searches: With the exploding volume of images, sound and video, many new ventures are experimenting with ways to search this rich content. PhotoSketch finds pictures that roughly resemble anything you draw in their online interface. Imprezzeo matches images you submit, ranked from best to worst fit. Shazam has already become profitable searching for a song when you record a few bars.

Trend #3: Increase in mobility

We’re traveling further, faster, commuting more and spending more time away from our home and office. Yet the need to stay connected to our communities and friends hasn’t lessened. Improvements in mobile devices are supporting this trend.

Although mobile phone penetration in the US is leveling off, we are seeing rapid growth in mobile internet users and mobile social network users.

Growth in Mobile Social Network Users

(Source: eMarketer)


Augmented reality becomes real: Think of a pilot’s heads-up display. Augmented reality apps allow the user to point their mobile phone toward a street and visually view data associated with that location – which friends are in the area, what stores are offering discounts, etc. Presselite has an app that enables Parisian subway passengers to locate the nearest stations. Layar is an augmented-reality browser that delivers ATM locations, restaurant information, and more on the phone’s screen as users point the camera at their surroundings. Friends can tag locations with information and images for others.

Geolocation data will be more widely used: Despite privacy concerns, if people get value from letting mobile phones and apps have access to their location, they will share that data. More apps will become location aware, e.g. Yelp mobile to find nearby restaurants, Flixster to find the nearest movie theater, NavX to track someone’s running route, and Google Latitude to find where friends are.

Speech-activated mobile tools leverage normal human interaction: Google Voice allows the user to dictate a text message and send it without typing on a mobile phone keyboard. As people continue to multi-task while mobile, we will need to make it safer and less distracting.

Trend #4: Increasing transparency of personal information

Privacy is primarily a process of boundary management. It’s about feeling in control of what other people know about you. Feeling comfortable with the release of personal information ties back to the need already discussed to have multiple social groups that mirror real world relationships.

Unlike the common assumption, even teens care about online privacy, according to Danah Boyd, a researcher at Microsoft who has done excellent work for many years on online social relationships and their relation to the real world. PEW reports that “the majority of teens actively manage their online profiles to keep the information they believe is most sensitive away from the unwanted gaze of strangers, parents and other adults.”

One teenager Cheskin Added Value talked to said: “Facebook is about connecting people, and sharing information with each other. The way my friends and I see it, Facebook is a closed network. It’s a network of people and friends that you trust to be connected to, and to share information like your email address, AIM screen name, and phone number. You know who’s getting your status messages, because you either approved or added each person to your network.”

The ability to set different groups of “friends” will solve many privacy problems: Privacy is about control of the audience. If we know that only close friends will see this photo, many privacy concerns are assuaged. If a friend sends that private photo on, the social consequences are the same as if the friend verbally told a secret confided to them – this is a human behavior issue, not a technology issue.

“Available” status posts that let anyone see who is online will disappear: People turn themselves invisible on IM or social networks or email out of fear that someone they don’t want to talk to might see they’re online and say hello. This is a broken user experience that can be fixed. Our online social interactions need to enable our need for community, not hinder it.

Online anonymity is declining: As people use multiple online sites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Latitude, Yelp, and dating sites), they leave behind information that someone can piece back together to identify them. It is becoming more difficult to mold an online persona that differs from the offline world. A basic shift to greater online openness is under way.


General social trends are playing out on the internet and influencing the future of social computing. The killer app of the internet has turned out to be social networking, by enabling our fundamental human need for being connected to others. Understanding these needs gives us the tools to predict the promise of social networking and the implications for its future evolution.



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