Users are now able to have a say, exert influence and get involved, and are no longer just listeners or viewers. The roles of recipient and sender are now entirely interchangeable. This phenomenal spread of social media is also undoubtedly partly attributable to those media that have eagerly embraced the new trend. The permanent digital media presence of all social media platforms has inevitably attracted further user groups, who, out of curiosity or a desire to be involved, have tried out one or several of the many online innovations.
Global technology network
However, the correct technology had to be in place before social media could develop into social media mania. There can be no digital networking without internet access. Access to the world wide web is now available to almost one in three people around the globe, which equates to around two billion individuals. This is as a result of the continuous expansion of broadband technology, as well as the fall in connection costs. Internet is no longer a luxury and consequently is also used by many lower income groups. The number of internet users around the world increased by 44% between the years 2000 and 2010 alone. However, access is by no means yet universal or equally distributed: only about 11% and 22% of the population are online in Africa and Asia respectively, whereas 77% of North Americans have internet access and in some European countries, such as Sweden and the UK, more than 80% of the population are connected to the web. These highly developed countries have been exceptionally well supplied with high-speed internet and flat rates for several years now. This again raises the question: why exactly did social media mania only break out in industrialized countries around three or four years ago? The answer is that, until recently, network effects were not present for social media.
Mobile hardware as a basis
The economic concept of network effects states that certain products are only perceived as useful when they are used by a minimum number of people for a longer period of time. According to this theory, the subjectively perceived benefit that such a product generates for its users goes hand-in-hand with its current prevalence and the anticipated future level of use. A specific example is the telephone, which is only a fantastic communication device because others own and use it and will continue to do so in future. The same is true of social media, as it, too, only generates a perceived positive use for individuals if it is used by a sufficient number of other people. Only then can the use of the product continue to increase under its own steam and become self-perpetuating.
Until a few years ago, even in highly developed countries with excellent infrastructure networks, it was precisely this that was lacking: a perceived positive use. What is the point of a mobile app for an internet service such as Foursquare if you do not have a smartphone? How can you be expected to post your current location on Facebook when you cannot connect to the internet while on the move? Before the availability of hardware enabling users to access the internet at reasonable prices, social media quite simply did not make sense.
However, quantum leaps have been made in the technological development of mobile IT devices in recent years. The figures from GfK speak volumes: the share of stationary desktop PCs in the total number of devices with internet access in a household decreased from two-thirds to around a third between 2005 and 2010. At the same time, the share of mobile computers has more than doubled and currently stands at 44%, while smartphones have increased their share more than six-fold to 20% at present.
What about the next generation – the technologically adept and online-savvy Generation Y, which has grown up using Skype, Twitter, etc.? They cannot be relied upon to prolong the "experimentation effect”. For this generation, social media is a fact of life. The reasons why today’s 30-year-olds are practically attached to their laptops and smartphones are by and large not prevailing among the younger generations of today. And much less the generations of tomorrow. Young people take the interactive, participatory and creative possibilities of social media for granted and expect new forms of stimulation. In future, they will use participatory media less for amusement and more as a means to an end. They need these media, because as future employees in a globalized world they will be active on an international stage. Consequently, the desire and necessity to be networked internationally between countries and continents will also continue to increase.
Separating the wheat from the chaff
What can we expect from tomorrow’s world? The wheat will be separated from the chaff. Whether a social media site proves to be a temporary bubble or not will depend on three factors.
Firstly, it must represent specific socially acceptable fundamental principles. The openness of millions of users, who reveal much of themselves in their online profiles, must not be abused.
Secondly, the site must earn the loyalty of its users, which means it must take account of their wishes more than ever before. The recipe for success is the effective combination of media features that have proven their worth. Live, personalized, socially networked, interactive, factual – this will define the social media of the future.
The third aspect is that it is important to move with the times. The number of individuals owning end devices that enable them to make the most of social media will continue to rise. Before long, an internet-enabled television will be standing in every living room, while every briefcase will contain a tablet PC and everyone will have a smartphone in their coat pocket. Although currently perceived as revolutionary, this form of interaction will soon permeate into all areas of life and become a familiar and normal standard for all. However, with new generations of devices and new, faster transmission standards, innumerable new users will experiment with a myriad of new application scenarios.
A social media platform must take account of these trends and be guided by them. Data protection, integration of established elements and openness to new ideas are all required – only then will social media stand the test of time.
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