Social media has already fundamentally changed the way many of us live our lives or do business. In coming years its role in almost every aspect of public, private, political, commercial and community life is likely to grow; it could be seen as digital recombinant DNA, central to everything but changing and being changed, made up of millions of bits and bytes, with multiple roles, instructions and connections. This extended trend alert indicates some of the trends affecting the current development of social media, as a prelude to further discussions at a forthcoming foresight meeting in London; it does not claim to be comprehensive, but a jump off point.

What is changing?

Revenue generation accelerating

Social media is big business. A recent forecast for all forms of social media revenue world wide anticipated a fifteen fold increase from $14.9 billion in 2012 to $233 billion in 2020. A large chunk, but by no means all, is expected to be advertising revenue.  With that growth is also coming a geographic shift, reflecting the global economic shift from north to south, west to east, old to new world. By 2020, Europe and the US will see their combined market share of 53% decline to 16% and 19% respectively; the Middle East will expand to 7%, Africa 9%, Latin America to 14% and Oceania/ Asia to 36%.

Expanding and ageing

The current wave of social media sites started 10 years ago with Friendster, although Facebook did not arrive till 2006. Numbers of users continue to grow – Facebook has 800 million and rising, Twitter 300 million, Google+ 150 million, LinkedIn 135 million. Specialist sites such as ResearchGate for scientists and researchers or Genomera for those interested in sharing and exploring genetic research have far fewer. But whereas young people may make up the majority of current mainstream users, the fastest growing segment is the over 65s – social media is maturing in more ways than one. As the installed base of smart phones continues to expand, so too will their use for social media – already accounting for 40% of social media access.

The power of the crowd

Users are anything but uniform in how they use the systems: for some it is a way of life, they are the creators who generate and share content; for others an occasional, almost a one-off event of setting up a personal page and leaving it there, inactive. But gradually, a layer of social interaction and shared endeavour is being embedded into more and more areas of activity, redefining how we do them, changing the business models on which they are based. Social media is both global and hyperlocal, highly personal and a mass movement.

The number of applications is growing almost exponentially; their impact widening and deepening. Social TV is enabling people to comment on and talk about the programme in real time; the use of social media in marketing and shopping is creating increasingly integrated ‘omni-channels’ for both; education and research exploring the content and the solutions during the process rather than as an end product is growing; crowdfunding business start-ups, bands, charities and saving pictures for the nation are ever more numerous; open innovation data sharing between and within companies is finding solutions in new places, and faster; disease monitoring and pandemic tracking on a global scale is helping save lives; local discussion and reporting are creating transparency and accountability in politics, speed of response in protests, new community endeavours and regeneration.

Even the lives of those who do not at present engage in social media will be affected.

New tools, new potential

Social media does not stand in isolation; it is linking in with and enabling a host of other tools and techniques – both reinforcing their potential and enhancing its own.

It is in part driving the development of big data, the vast and growing pool of archived and real-time, highly personal and highly disaggregated data. This pool of data is in turn driving the development of new tools, such as sophisticated data-analytics in the hope of being able to mine this vast resource for new insights and understanding; competitive edge and national security; for gauging the mood of the nation, the market, even the world. Natural language programming and analysis, among many other tools, is becoming a critical key to unlocking that potential.

M-payment is taking off in western markets; it has been highly successful in emerging markets for some years. As m-payment combines with social-shopping and collaborative consumption and purchasing, so location based services and in-store comparison shopping will provide huge opportunities but also challenge retailers and consumer-facing businesses to deliver.

Gamification as a process is being used in numerous ways – to help people lose weight, recycle more, or win the deal; the US army to find suitable recruits; and now scientists to begin to solve complex problems and find new galaxies. Social media as well as Gamification underpins these processes.

Soon we will have even more powerful networks as all five senses become digitised, enabling us to attach not just audio and visual information, but touch and smell to messages too. Avatars are already part of virtual worlds and teleconferencing: they could soon extend and enhance social media further integrating and layering real, augmented and virtual realities.

Dark side of the moon

But there is also a dark side, the ‘dark web’ as it is becoming known. Criminals are using social media to innovate and become more efficient. The ‘dark web’ is a route to anything and everything illegal from drugs to guns to hard core pornography and money laundering.  As the legitimate  ‘Bring Your Own Device’ movement grows and more and more companies allow their employees to use their own smart phones for work, so criminals are finding new ways into corporations. Identity theft is easier the more information is available about where people live, work and were educated; making social media a thieves’ paradise. Cybercrime has already been identified as one of the biggest threats facing us: social media may be both a means and an end.

Social media can be seen as the next battlefield: its ability to enable hidden discussion and dissemination of ideas to break down barriers is matched by its power to foster narrow mindedness and extremism; while its role in ‘the Arab Spring’ may have been exaggerated, its use in the organisation of protests and riots is clear. Understanding and seeing the patterns sooner is an essential tool in national security.

Privacy is another growing concern, and contrary to popular perceptions is a concern among young people too. New regulations on privacy and disclosure come into force this year as discussed in Privacy Watershed. More and more people are expunging photos and data from their profiles, but the power of the providers to scrape and integrate, share and apply our data continues. For many consumers, convenience and fun continue to outweigh privacy; for now.

Why is this important?

Personal and corporate reputations will be made and lost as sharing and visibility become collaboration and accountability. The power to influence will grow, but so too will the ability to hold to account, to ensure consistency.

Business models are being transformed. Organisations in every sector will need to adapt to new realities in order to compete. Governments at every level will need to take the lessons on board too.

Internal communications and collaboration will become open and non-hierarchical; communities of interest will cross boundaries and make business processes faster, change processes and innovation bottom-up and not top-down.

Social media is set to become mainstream; it will be integral to almost anything and everything within 5 years. It could be seen as digital recombinant DNA, enabling and driving social connections and processes in new ways.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.