The future of social media

The future of social media

Social media platforms as we know them today are at the starting point of an exciting evolution that will lead them to become ever more valuable to us in our day-to-day lives. They will develop to be much richer experiences than we see today, and they will evolve to become life platforms, reaching into many new areas of our lives, well beyond the social.

Social media platforms have already become the address book for the planet, making it easy to find billions of people you might want to connect with. These platforms are already evolving to enable you to connect not just to other people, but also to brands, services and other institutions. So rather than call an airline, or go to their website to make a booking, you will communicate with them through online platforms. And most likely you won’t be communicating with a human representative of the company, but an algorithm. Whether you call this technology A.I., chatbots, or conversations as a service, it’s pretty much all the same thing—a set of complex, learning algorithms that mimic a human interface and can help you achieve a set of tasks.

The text and image-based world of today's social media will eventually become a relic, giving way to rich new types of interactions using VR and AR

The text and image-based world of today's social media will eventually become a relic, giving way to rich new types of interactions using VR and AR

Our interactions through social media, whether with another human being or a chat algorithm, will also become much less about text and more about richer types of media. We have already seen platforms like Facebook, QQ, Twitter, WeChat, and Snapchat embrace video. Some platforms already feature 360 video that enables you to pan around a video image as it plays by moving your phone. This is a baby step towards full 360 degree video immersion as we enter the era of virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR). Our desire for intimacy with those we care about will be met by unifying us over time and space within VR and AR worlds. These new platforms will combine with social media to enable us to feel like we are sharing the same physical space with others, whether in real time, or with pre-recorded virtual video messages. I live 5000 miles away from my parents and other relatives who all live back in the UK. The thought of these enhanced interactions is intriguing and exciting—being able to feel present at my nephew’s birthday parties, or able to share joke and a beer with my dad, or to watch a video message from my mum just to say she was thinking of me. Social VR and AR will never be a replacement for real physical presence and contact. But in situations where that is impractical we can simulate these feelings of intimacy by essentially tricking the visual and auditory systems of our brains so that they feel virtual presence.

Social VR selfie shown at Facebook's recent F8 developer event

The open question is whether we will want to use these more intimate methods of interaction with strangers and the avatars that will embody chatbots. Will we want to summon video representatives of mortgage brokers into our living rooms when we are looking to refinance our homes and want to “chat” about rates and loan options? Will we want to have a peppy virtual representative of United Airlines appear on our couch next to us so we can chew him out for the awful flight we endured earlier in the week? Will we want to invite Amazon into our living rooms to put on a fashion show showing a specially curated set of clothing, designed just for us? Maybe, maybe not.

One thing is for sure. Social media is going to evolve rapidly, and the stream of text-based updates about friends both near and far will seem quaint when compared to what these platforms become. The same way we might look back at the early days of home computing with its character-based interfaces and rudimentary windowed graphics, we will look at the social media platforms of today and marvel at how clunky, limited, and impersonal they were. Social media platforms will evolve to become full communication platforms, able to connect us virtually with any person, and brand, or any other entity in the world. Or at least with their virtual representation. Which leaves me with the final question over the future of social media…will we eventually seek digital representation for ourselves? Will we train chatbots to handle simpler interactions on our behalf, and to represent or even pretend to be us? How will we know when we are really talking to somebody else rather than being fobbed off by a facsimile sent to intercept us and politely deal with us? 

Expect social media to evolve to become a full-on soup to nuts commercial platform too.  Today eBay takes a small slice out of every transaction made on its site and social media sites have long wanted a piece of that action. Social media platforms will charge brands for the privilege of accessing their users and conducting business with them. They will also continue to make good money helping brands to laser-target all of those users with tempting offers. The difference is that social media will no longer just be about advertising and demand-generation, but will extend their offering to encompass the entire sales process including product discovery, purchase, and after-sales support. Once we link our bank accounts to these platforms, and they connect us directly to brands and services, we will see a big chunk of shopping move into these virtual spaces and marketplaces. This is a world in which titans like Facebook and Amazon will finally come face to face, and clash in a mighty battle for mindshare. 

The future of social media is both exciting and daunting. Expect these platforms to expand well beyond the social, to become more commercial, and to embrace VR and AR with fervor. These new platforms, now almost unrecognizable versus their humble beginnings, will simultaneously make our lives easier and more fulfilling while at the same time continuing to turn us into commercial targets ripe for harvest. The old adage in social media will still stand: if the product is free, then YOU are the product.