Everyone is talking about social media – a global phenomenon that has captivated individuals of all ages and backgrounds. The digital exchanges of social media are perfectly suited to today’s world because they allow flexibility, something that is clearly desirable given the increasingly busy daily lives of users. The sender and recipient do not need to be available at the same time, as they do for a conversation. Texts and images can be sent and then read or viewed later. For the first time, social media is offering individuals the opportunity to shape their communication practices in a variety of ways: should they be synchronous or asynchronous? Where will they occur and who will be involved?
Have a say, experiment, be involved
There are also other good reasons why social media is so captivating. The interactive concept on which social online media is based, for example. Interaction perfectly complements the communicative desire of society. Traditionally, listening to the radio or watching television is a one-way process. In contrast, digital entertainment is moving away from the more passive, one-sided sender-recipient model of the past.
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.
Consequently, more and more people are able to use social media to interact with others while out and about regardless of their location, rather than being limited to the stationary PC at home. Only once this broad digital basis was in place was social media use able to establish the necessary critical mass required for a network effect. There is therefore potential for the number of users and intensity of use to be permanently sustained for the first time.But does this mean that social media will effectively hold its own in future? Will the appeal of networking, having a say, interacting and experimenting continue to encourage people to chat, blog, tweet and post?
The example of
Second Life suggests differently – does anyone remember what avatar they had? In the second half of the last decade, a great future was predicted for the virtual world of Second Life, just as is the case for social media today. It was to be the new form of online activity. Users met up as virtual fantasy figures in a 3D world, where they talked, played, danced and exchanged information. Benefiting from a strong media presence, the hype escalated rapidly, which was partly attributable to the vast numbers of first-time users – the "experimentation effect”. Consumers wanted to test the platform, gain experience or simply be involved. However, the craze did not last, because the aforementioned necessary critical mass of users could not be sustained in the long term. Now in competition with other innovative, web-based social networks, such as
LinkedIn, the concept of Second Life, which was originally regarded as revolutionary, seems like a relic of the past. The increasing variety of internet sites opened up new possibilities for users and Second Life rapidly became the second, third or fourth choice.
MySpace, one of the first social networks, is suffering a similar fate, having passed the peak of its development eight years after it was created.New web-based developments will continue to spring up in future and consequently generate new stimulus. It is only a matter of time before the current "experimentation effect” in social media is transferred to the next craze. Although new social media users have been joining every single day up to now and the surge is expected to continue, it will be distributed much more selectively across a broader range of social media sites. In light of the increasing variety, most of the users who are already involved will in future have to divide their time between different forms of social media.
A means to an end
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.