Over the last five years, social media has evolved from a handful of communities that existed solely in a web browser to a multi-billion dollar industry that’s quickly expanding to mobile devices, driving major changes in content consumption habits and providing users with an identity and social graph that follows them across the web.
With that framework in place, the next five years are going to see even more dramatic change. Fueled by advancements in underlying technology – the wires, wireless networks and hardware that make social media possible – a world where everything is connected awaits us. The result will be both significant shifts in our everyday lives and a changing of the guard in several industries that are only now starting to feel the impact of social media.
The growth of social media in the past five years was fueled not just by innovation from Internet entrepreneurs and developers, but by several key advancements behind the scenes. The rise of YouTube – which I called the most important social media innovation of the past decade – would not have been possible without the wide availability of broadband and the advent of Flash 7. Similarly, the rapid rise of mobile apps in the last few years would not have been possible without major advances in smartphone capabilities (jump started by iPhone) and higher speed mobile networks.
Jumping ahead to today, consider for a moment that the first smartphone to run on 4G (the successor to 3G mobile broad and capable of significantly faster mobile broadband speeds) – the Sprint HTC EVO – hit the U.S. only this past June. Sprint’s 4G network, however, only covers about 40 million people. Similarly, wireless broadband ISP Clearwire reported in May that its network – which is also used to offer service to Sprint, Verizon, and Time Warner cable subscribers – only reaches 41 million people. At the same time, mobile broadband subscriptions are expected to surpass 1 billion worldwide by 2013.
Add to that a surge in public and private investment in wireline broadband that will give 90% of homes in the U.S. the option to have 50 mbps downstream broadband within the next few years, and the bottom line becomes clear: There’s currently an enormous supply and demand gap to be filled, and when that happens, it will enable a whole new wave of social media innovation.
The Strong Get Stronger
While the relatively short history of social media dictates that a new site emerges as the “home of you and your friends” every few years (Friendster, then MySpace, then Facebook, for example), it seems unlikely we’ll see the current pantheon of social media services – Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube – fall from prominence in the next five years.
Facebook has a far larger user base and more diverse demographics than any social network before it, and is becoming a de facto login service around the web. YouTube continues to maintain an enormous lead in online video viewership and through aggressive deal-making, looks likely to fend off competition from upstarts with deeper pro-content libraries. Twitter has also become a formidable force with a 300,000+ app ecosystem and a distribution platform for virtually every media company large and small.
Most new outfits we see today — whether working to make television more interactive, make reading more social, or make listening to music a shared experience – are thinking about how to leverage the likes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as opposed to how to build the next mega social network.
The Next Frontiers for Social Media
Given the dynamics of a faster, ubiquitous Internet, a social media landscape defined by apps built on top of a few key services, and billions of connected devices, the next five years will see shifts in certain areas of media – like television and radio – that will be as dramatic as those seen in print over the past decade.
The Internet has already enabled anyone to be a publisher. But now, with Internet-connected television, anyone is going to be able to gain access to the living room. Blip.tv, a company that bet on this trend early, recently reported that its shows – which air solely online and on connected devices – are being viewed nearly 100 million times per month — or, put another way, 10% as much as what’s viewed on ABC, NBC, and FOX combined.
And while this trend was previously relegated to early adopters and startup set-top box makers like Boxee and Roku, recent months have seen the likes of Google jump on board with Google TV and Apple revamp its Apple TV offering. At the same time, so-called “second screen” providers are building a social experience – leveraging Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube – on mobiles and tablets around video content. The result of this trend is going to be the type of broad consumer choice in the realm of video and television that we currently know on the web with printed news.
Radio is likely to see a similar shift. Late last year, we saw the LTE Connected Car concept unveiled – an idea that will become increasingly close to reality with expanded 4G coverage. Already, we’ve seen Ford make a play in this arena, letting you stream music from Pandora over your car stereo. While the transformation in radio might not come as soon as that in TV, it’s equally inevitable, and there are hundreds of content providers – from Pandora to Last.fm to BlogTalkRadio – ready to unseat the status quo.
Beyond Social Media
The connected devices theme extends beyond the media though — everything from scales that track your weight and body fat to alarm clocks that sync with your calendar — is quickly becoming the reality. We’re also starting to see behavioral shifts take place as a result of this trend, as evident with the growing acceptance of location sharing apps and even apps that share your credit card purchases.
Invariably, there will be products, people, and trends that further dictate where the next five years of social media take us. But the overarching themes of connectivity, portable identity, and the continued democratization of media will drive much of it, making the social media landscape we inhabit five years from now a much expanded but in fact markedly similar one to that we know today.