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The future of social media

July 31st, 2011 by Graham Attwell

Although Google+ has been generally welcomed the advent of yet another social networking site has given rise to some thoughts on just exactly what value such sites are.

In a perceptive blog post George Siemens writes:

I’ve concluded that most of the hype around social media is nonsense and that people, particularly the self-proclaimed social media elite are clothing-less……What has social media actually done? Very, very little. The reason? Social media is about flow, not substance…….Twitter/Facebook/G+ are secondary media. They are a means to connect in crisis situations and to quickly disseminate rapidly evolving information. They are also great for staying connected with others on similar interests (Stanley Cup, Olympics). Social media is good for event-based activities. But terrible when people try to make it do more – such as, for example, nonsensically proclaiming that a hashtag is a movement. The substance needs to exist somewhere else (an academic profile, journal articles, blogs, online courses).

It is difficult not to agree. Even on twitter – to date my preferred social network – the ratio of conversation to proclamation – or information sharing – seems to be decreasing. Or is this a reverse power  effect – is it that the more people you follow the less the social interactions?

I think the problem is context. Social media work well in a particular context – be it talking with close friends and family – keeping people up to date on your movement or planning holidays – or around conferences and events, planning projects or seeking jobs. However social media is far less strong in the context of everyday life flows. Indeed the only aspect of context that social media seems good at is geo-awareness with all the privacy issues that brings.

It may be important though to distinguish between social media ‘in the wild’ – Facebook, Twitter and Google+ web sites – and the integration of social media within more specific and contextually defined web tools to support activities, learning or communities. Twitters success may be down to its relatively open development environment making it easy to embed twitter flows into blogs or community web sites.

Not withstanding the debate over the use of real names in Google+ and acknowledging the interest in the playful use of alternative identities, the issue of linking real life worlds and social media worlds seems an important one. As George says “substance needs to exist somewhere else”. But whilst George is posting that substance in the academic world, such substance may lie in different facets of our lives – within work, play or the community.

Yet I suspect those corporations developing social media applications have little interest in such substance. The substance for them is in the advertising and commercial world which produces them profit, the ultimate arbiter of success for social media companies. I have written before that the future of social media may lie in more focused and niche networks and communities – communities which can link our online and off line activities and enrich both. But such communities will have to be developed from  the bottom up. And in this context the issue of design will involve much more than cool tools and applications – or indeed encouraging us to follow ever more ‘friends’.

One Response to “The future of social media”

  1. Thanks for the article.

    I also believe that “the future of social media may lie in more focused and niche networks and communities – communities which can link our online and off line activities and enrich both.” I’ve been building such a community for over 20 years, before I even knew the internet existed. What has changed is that 20 years ago my network was who I could reach on the telephone, face-to-face, or via a copy-machine and fax. Now my network extends to people and ideas from throughout the world and it keeps growing faster and faster because I use social media to find people who share ideas related to my own mission/purpose or to enable others to find me.

    Because of my social media network I just stumbled across articles about MOOCs today, and am already trying to find people to help me facilitate a networked learning process that connects thousands of people to ideas that can help change the future for inner city kids. It’s one more tool in a rapidly expanding toolbox.

    In an blog written by Vance Stephens that introduced me to MOOCs another article talked about intrinsic motivation and volunteering. Within that was this paragraph:

    “Keeping a large group focused can be a full-time job … Organizing groups into an effective whole is so brutally difficult that, past a certain scale, it requires professional management … salaries … bookkeeping and all the rest of the trappings of a formal organization … As always, high hurdles to an activity reduce the number of people who do it, and the hurdle of large-scale coordination has largely separated amateurs from professionals … when pursuing an intrinsic goal in public required considerable work, the amateurs largely opted out of public action. ”

    I think that the innovators who find ways to keep large groups of people involved for months and years in internet and place-based learning networks aimed at solving difficult social problems will be the people who really harness all of the potential that we’re just beginning to uncover. I hope I can be part of that.

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