The emergence of Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the social Web as a global force in the last several years has done a great deal to highlight their potential to fundamentally alter the way we communicate and collaborate both at home and in business. However, despite the movement of social computing into our daily lives we’re all clearly on a long journey together as the technologies themselves emerge from infancy.
The state-of-the-art today when it comes to the social computing environments that surround us now — in our browsers, mobile devices, and elsewhere — underscores how much more we have left to do to make these new modes of digital conversation and discourse become mature, efficient, safe, and truly useful.
Fortunately the Web doesn’t stand still and a great deal of research and development continues to go into evolving the mechanics of today’s online social universe. There are presently many new efforts under way to refine and improve the world of social media, some of which we’ll explore here and many which are just beginning.
The consumer Web continues to drive social business
While some advances in social media are happening in the enterprise space as well, the real story continues to be the Web as it continues to forge quickly ahead in terms of sheer innovation and raw output to shape the latest developments in social computing.
Naturally, we’ll likely see some of these attempts fall by the wayside in the relentlessly Darwinian environment of the Internet. We’ll also see many of them succeed because of their broad engagement with the Web community, apparent utility, and subsequent widespread adoption.
As for 2010, it’s shaping up to be a year of general improvement in the business and technology industries hard hit by recession, the impact of which has seemed to hold back new investment and experimentation in social technologies, many of which are funded by staff participation from Internet firms. But it’s now looking to be a banner year for significant advances in social software standards and technologies, many of them to address well-known shortcomings and inconveniences in today’s Web 2.0 landscape.
The Social Web Challenges of 2010: A List
What are the challenges with the social Web today? For one, its very size is now an issue. The social Web has virtually exploded over the last three years, going from tens of millions of users to many hundreds of millions of users.
It has also entered the late majority of the mainstream population, meaning that many of the ways that it works will not be as accessible to those least familiar with it. But the “social Web” has practically just become “the Web” at this point. Social computing is now something that most people do at least in some form on an almost daily basis. Along the way we’ve all learned some of the shortcomings of today’s social tools and environments. Indeed, the very success of this mode of online interaction has begun to pose its own issues. In a nutshell, these issues are:
* Fragmentation of conversation. The blogosphere is a case in point with its highly decentralized nature that breaks up discussion into a series of links that have to be chased down. The decentralization is good in many cases but we’re also learning it can hurt consumption and participation. This is the same with competing activity streams in various social networks. While the focus perhaps should instead be on the conversations themselves and integrating them across whatever platforms within which they are taking place, the view today is instead still too much on individual tools and channels. Up until now linking, syndication, and shared comment services have been used to connect the dots on distributed conversations but the practical usefulness of these approaches has been reached in many cases. The time is right to use the model of the Web to make it easier to put a conversation or collaborative activity into central focus, no matter where the underlying inputs come from. This is something that Google is attempting to do with its Wave format and remains an approach to watch.
* Disconnects between older and newer generations of social media. The latest new social media platforms — particularly the large social network services — are highly centralized compared to their much more distributed antecedents such as blogs and wikis. There are great differences between the way information flows from these services across the Web, how identity is established between them (and verified or not), and whether the embedded application models are standardized or not (Facebook brings real app standardization to the table and the ability to tap deeply into social data for example, while blogs/wikis don’t offer much of either), to name a couple of key ssues. These disconnects lead to unnecessary barriers to participation, reach, investment, and ultimately value.
* Lack of control of identity, contacts, and data. This has been a subject of debate for years and it’s still fairly difficult to export contacts from many social networking platforms. At the same time it’s been getting easier and easier to use the identity of choice at your favorite social media site to establish an identity and log in using OpenID or Facebook Connect. Data portability itself, outside of social graph information, is slowly improving with many online services supporting OAuth and other means of 3rd party data access such as open APIs, but there’s a long way to go as we’ll see before we have full flexibility and control of our online identity and data. This has various implications for businesses that want to engage more fully in the social Web ranging from the ability to establish a unified social identity to having positive control over their own data.
* A better social Web on mobile devices. While this area has improved enormously in the last few years with a virtual parade of mobile applications aimed at the social space (particularly on the iPhone and Android), both existing applications as well as more mobile-focused social networking services such as FourSquare and BrightKite are attempting to make mobile a far more meaningful social experience. But there’s lots more to do here before the mobile social Web catches up to the browser-based experience.
* Poor integration between social media and location services. Again, while there’s already some location awareness in social networking services today, there’s a long way to go before it’s integrated meaningfully into the social experience to provide real utility. While geolocation services are just now getting into the browser (see Mozilla’s geolocation features for Firefox for an example) and the basic infrastructure being put in place, little critical mass has been achieved despite serious bids from major vendors in the past. There are many potentially useful consumer and business applications that can be created on the intersection of social and location (at hoc meeting organization app, delivery ETA tracking, etc.) , and with a few more fundamentals in place we’ll start seeing more meaningful integration with social media.
* Difficulty of coherently engaging in social activity across many channels. Tired of the day-long round-robin between your e-mail, SMS, Twitter, Facebook, and any other services you use to keep up with what’s going on? You’re not the only one. While aggregation services such as Friendfeed potentially cut down on the manual effort of using the social Web, it’s still not mainstream despite being a good example of what’s possible. Notably it’s often the big (and closed) social silos that are causing the problem.
* Coping with and getting value from the expanding information volume of social media. We’re all learning how to deal with the firehose of information that flows out of social media on a minute-by-minute basis. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that this flow of transparent and open information is actually good and often useful and creates important conversations. But the simple fact is that much of it isn’t meant for non-stop, instantaneous consumption; it simply isn’t practical. Rather, social media leaves behind artifacts and information that we can find and use later when we need them. But at the moment the process of sorting through, aggregating, and filtering the vast volume of information cascading through social media today remains a real and growing challenge. I also began to get the first real reports that this is happening in the enterprise last year as social media begins to grow there as well.
Fortunately, many of these issues are widely recognized by the Web development community and there are a number of efforts aimed at addressing these, many of which will see real world deployment in consumer tools near you in 2010 and will then begin flowing into businesses as well.
Four aspects of social Web evolution
So what kind of emerging standards and technologies are we seeing that can help address these issues? It turns out that there are quite a number of interesting efforts or new takes on existing efforts worth examining right now. These include:
1. Open activity streams. The central artifact of social media has become the activity stream, whether this is the familiar Facebook news feed, Twitter stream, or the classical reverse chronological list of blog entries or wiki modifications. The problem is that there are too many streams to interact with these days and they are too distributed to perceive and interact with directly. They also come in many different types from syndication formats like RSS and Atom to custom API streams. End users don’t care about the technical details anyway, so there has been some interesting work on standards for social activity streams and activity stream aggregation. The standard to watch is activity strea.ms which has already been adopted by Facebook, MySpace, Windows Live, and Opera and many others with Google and Yahoo! close behind. Some are likening this to when different phone systems or e-mail providers allowed their respective populations to communicate with each other.
Once standards are put in place by providers (and release officially in their tools and platforms), activity streams can be more easily accessed for both browsing and posting using well defined APIs, thereby directly enabling unified 3rd party experiences across different social channels. Activity stream aggregators like Friendfeed or social dashboards such as Tweetdeck can then offer a single social front-end that holds the promise to reduce the friction of using today’s proliferating channels of social media. This could also address some of the disconnect between older and newer social media platforms I outlined above. The bad news? Standardizing activity streams might not create a unified experience across popular social networking application formats such as those between Facebook apps and OpenSocial. In other words, social media data flow will likely be open and standardized soon, but not the social applications themselves, keeping the walled gardens up between social apps for the time being. For now, smart consumers and businesses will insist on open activity streams in 2010.
2. Portable identity, contacts, and data. Having a single, chosen online identity has become the holy grail of the social Web in some circles for years now. Fortunately, it’s fast become a reality, whether that’s for logging in to Web sites (the approaches include OpenID, Facebook Connect, and Google Accounts) or for directly accessing the data that you own at a site (OAuth and OAuth WRAP). All of these approaches made major headway in 2009 and are poised for mainstream use in 2010. For those building Web sites or using social media tools, these standards will be the stamp of approval. The social graph is also becoming more portable and despite fairly unsuccessful attempts to standardize this up until now new attempts such as Portable Contacts may have more success this year with backing from Google and influential figures from the open Web community including Chris Messina and Joseph Smarr. There are also efforts emerging, such as WebFinger, to make metadata about people more open and easily obtainable instead of relying on profile pages on proprietary social networking services or poorly supported microformats. A few semi-proprietary yet popular social metadata services have thrived as well and will continue to be grow in importance this year. A good example is the Gravatar service, which lets users define how their user profile picture looks, and is then pulled in from whatever social media tools they interact with later on. This gives users one single place to control their visual representation across the Web.
3. Better social and location capabilities added to the core of mobile devices. Social APIs in mobile devices that understand the Web (and things like Portable Contacts) have not yet emerged in the iPhone or Android SDKs other than some local address book access. For now, individual applications must connect to social media on the Web and access activity streams and contacts only if they are socially savvy. A few, such as FourSquare, are doing some impressive things but the industry currently lacks the critical mass of a major mobile vendor putting intelligent social capabilities into the device APIs itself, thus making most mobile apps non-social today. For now, there are some innovative examples of mobile social solutions including Bu.mp for easy contact exchange and Loopt for socially-powered mobile discovery. As for location, while initiatives such as Yahoo’s Fire Eagle and especially Google Latitude have made some headway in fueling location services in mobile apps, there’s still a long way to go yet before location is ambient enough to make a big impact on the social side. Emerging to fill the gap this year are open source projects such as PhoneGap, which offer consistent location-aware capabilities across the iPhone, Android, and Blackberry.
4. Better distributed models for the social Web. Two good examples of this includes the advent of the increasingly widely used PubSubHubBub for faster and more efficient notification of social media updates and the Salmon Protocol which “aims to define a standard protocol for comments and annotations to swim upstream to original update sources — and spawn more commentary in a virtuous cycle.” I’d also expect to see some social capabilities emerge in Open Mashup Alliance, which itself can help bring together social capabilities very easily, both in the Web and the enterprise.
What’s missing from this picture? Unfortunately, quite a bit and this means 2010 is also going to be another year of consolidation and hard work to get the many and varied pieces of the social media world to fit together better and more easily. Of the issues I raised early on, a few will hardly be addressed this year by new social Web standards and technologies. These include the ability to support aggregating and filtering social media in a consistent way. Specifically, while some services, notably Twitter, make it fairly easy to build services that can sort through, process, and analyze the flow of social media to derive real intelligence and insight, most do not. Other areas where work needs to be done is in social media applications models 0where the great divide lies between Facebook apps and OpenSocial, neither of which may be ideal vehicles for the long term. There are others as well.
Of course, in terms of how it will impact us at home and ultimately in business, as we’ve seen with Enterprise 2.0, cloud computing, open APIs, and other major advances, the ideas in software these days are increasingly coming from the consumer world and then pushing their way into the enterprise realm. This is very much the case with the social Web. Thus, those looking to bring the latest advances into their organizations will need to track the developments above closely as many of them will appear in an enterprise social computing platform near you very soon.