The innovations of social media

We in the social media industry are given to talk about the fortunes of our leading companies. Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare are our brands. They are the characters in our story, legends of their own making and in their own time. Their decisions and strategies involve us directly and shape the very media we use daily to stay connected and in touch. But their futures and fortunes are just as much in our hands, so much so that we are as much a factor in their destinies as they are a factor in our experiences.

Lately it seems as if the plot-line has wavered between real and industry-shaping news and events, and a sort of complacency if not underwhelming reception to where social media are headed. I have the sense, personally, that news greeted with the initial round of applause and attention social media engender, is followed by a pause. As if, upon reflection, we realize that we have been here before. That the news is not really that new, though it may be news for the company. That in terms of experience, much of it still adds up to more, though different, advertising and marketing; more gaming; more tweets and updates; and more search and filtering with which to wade through them.

The technology industry promises to improve and enhance our experiences, and to meet our needs — be they about information, communication, answers, or social activities. What’s interesting about social media is that these needs are shaped by industry brand leadership choices and by our social media practices at one and the same time. Tools, and what we do with them, are inseparable.

All of this begs a pretty obvious question, and one that concerns us all: funders, entrepreneurs, engineers, marketers, experts, and users alike. The question pertains to the tools and industry landscape we get, and what we can do with their products. It is: “How do we innovate?”

If social tools address both technical and social issues, when are we truly innovating, and when are we just cleaning up the mess we have created for ourselves? When are we making genuinely resourceful and constructive contributions to communication, social, or informational needs? And when are we just scratching away at an ever-growing river of people, ideas, and communication? If social tools help us to do things together, then it seems fair to ask the question: which things should we be doing?

Current trends

The development of social tools is always in flux, and subject to innovations and changes on the technology and social ends of the spectrum. Tools enable uses, but with constraints. Uses develop around tools, and are reinforced as common social practices. Innovation occurs at inflection points, when tools make a functional leap, industry standards facilitate rapid growth and adoption, or when the user community starts doing something new. So before looking more closely at the causes of innovation, let’s take a stab at some technical and social trend-lines.

Trends: companies

Facebook continues to dominate many practices. In spite of missteps, the company gets social and knows how to do it very well. Any paradigm shift in the social media landscape would be recognized and assimilated by Facebook almost without question.

Google continues to dominate information-rich experiences, but is not as comfortable with mainstream social utilities and experiences as Facebook. Neither Wave nor Buzz have mounted a serious threat to twitter or Facebook, and it seems likely that Google’s social ventures will continue to take second place to its search and advertising commitments.

Twitter has recognized its shortcomings as a platform and intends to incorporate functionalities proven in the third party marketplace. It continues to serve purposes that neither Facebook nor Google can satisfy, and has enough headroom yet to grow its adoption while improving its platform.

Trends: social practices

Social tools have taken a conversational turn since twitter’s rise to popularity two years ago. What was once done on the page is now often done in the tweet or status update. Blogging and even commenting appear to be off, while status messages and tweets are on the rise. Both of which make sense, given that the time many of us spend online is now more continuous, connected, and mobile; and given that our social networks, too, reside not on the page or site but are indeed a burgeoning social infrastructure.

Much of social networking, in fact, could now be handled around messages instead of on pages and sites. (This is the impetus of my action streams idea.) Messages categorized into functional types, with accompanying buttons, could take the place of some of the sites and services that currently structure linguistic types of interaction (question/answer; quizzes; recommendations, invitations, classifieds, etc). A kind of super twitter could accomplish much of what we currently do with Yelp, Evite, and Craigsliist, etc.

If messaging is now a serious complement to the page-based social web, and if we can now do with short statements what we have required sites and serivces for in the past, what other practices might we envision for social media? What forms of communication lie between Youtube and Chatroulette? Between Yelp and Foursquare? Where are current trend-lines headed? And more to the point, how do we innovate What’s Next in social media?


Opportunities pursued and taken in the social media space reflect current economic and market conditions. The industry is naturally now more sensitive to run rates and exits than in the past. Few would attempt today to build a new twitter, Facebook, or Youtube. Instead, robust, highly competitive industries have sprung up around these mainstays, forming ecosystems in which smaller but leaner companies can still turn a profit (if not just eke out a meager but defensible existence). Many of these company fortunes relate to “hole filling,” and are for the most part well-defined and opportunistic businesses.

So what of the innovations? What is the industry’s current outlook for innovation — technical and social — given market inclinations? Do we have ways of innovating social practices? Can we do better to draw on inspirations from elsewhere outside the technology industry? How much of what we can do with social media are we not yet doing?

Innovation in social media wants not only to make incremental strides but to furnish new practices. Innovators want not only to successfully launch a new tool or application, but to cultivate new online habits. And as users, we are interested not only in improvements to the applications, but in doing something new. The “eureka” moment displaces more water, the more of us there are in the tub.

Consider, for example, some further questions about innovation:

  • Do we appreciate the importance of creative, interesting, compelling and entertaining communication?
  • Do we invest too much in the efficiency of information and not enough in the many stories and narrative forms available for packaging content
  • Have we done enough to explore the uses of different types of linguistic statements and performances — forms of speech that are already structured and whose uses are organized?
  • Do we rely too heavily on users to invent social practices, not realizing that as users we will often do what everyone else is doing — even when it is no longer novel or inspiring?
  • Do we rely too heavily on mass media and commercial culture, where there are many other cultural practices that might be mined for ideas of activities and pastimes?
  • If this is lego-land, what year is it?

Lines of evolution

Besides random and individual acts of innovation and creativity, there is another way to approach our search for sources of innovation. It is to look at the industry as an ecosystem of sorts, in which the evolutionary paths of applications and practices point to likely future developments.

We can identify several evolutionary lines. These are paths along which social media grow and develop, as articulated by the intrinsic coupllng of technology and media with individual and social use. Social media permit content production and consumption, distribution, communication, and interaction, all the while facilitating relationship maintenance through use of light social interactions. Thus the lines of development include incremental technical improvements, paradigm-shifting industry moves, changing social practices and the diversification of modes of communication.

Evolutionary lines run through social media applications, articulating uses served by those applications. They include:

  • Lines of relation: isolated, loosely-coupled exchanges to complex and role-differentiated social order
  • Lines of experience: non-disruptive and simple activity to deeply participatory and compelling engagement
  • Lines of interaction: transient actions and transactions to sustained exchanges and structured activities
  • Lines of content: short-form posts and updates to collaboratively produced “living” documents
  • Lines of temporality: brief and interruptive distractions to discontinuous but ongoing engagement
  • Lines of communication: slow and stretched, open communication to fast, fleeting transactions
  • Lines of the social: small and closed group phenomena to emergent and public social trends
  • Lines of production: simple messaging and gestures to rich media self expression
  • Lines of distribution: monological and short-lived posts to conversational, threaded, and brand-loyal subscriptions

Forces of evolution

Ecosystems have not only the evolutionary paths along which “species” develop, but forces of change and adaptation (also invention), too. Together, these forces contribute to development of the tools and applications we use in social media, activities enabled by common interface and feature sets, the individual, social, and cultural practices that guide user adoption and sustain interest and engagement, and finally, the periodic industry events that create change and inspire innovation.

Insofar as social media require technical development of tools and applications as well as adoption by an increasingly diversified social field, technology and culture push forward hand in hand. Technologies constrain what we can do with social media, but developments create new possibilities. Cultural practices firm up around uses of social media, but shape the grounds on which new developments are adopted and used.

Among the forces acting on the evolution of social media, we might identify the four primary forces.

  • Technical trajectories of development
  • Organization of social systems
  • Accepted user experiences and social practices
  • Intersections of influence, such as those created by shared standards, apis, and so on

Future forward

Is there a line of development along which tweets become games? Along which Foursquare checkins become recommendations? Or along which Facebook does social search? Not at present. But if twitter accommodated structured tweets, if Foursquare were more like Yelp, then quite possibly. The limitations are specific to the tools and their user cultures. But who is to say which path is worth taking, use case worth developing for, or feature worth implementing?

There is an entrenched tendency in social media to hew closely to best practices. This limits risk of rejection by users, and is a pitch that is easier to sell and to design. Co-opting the competition’s features and functionalities promises the possibility of retaining, if not accruing, users. It is a way to keep a tool up to date. But does it also short-change the user, and possibly even the industry, by reducing the diversity of social media experiences overall?

Perhaps it is in the very nature of the industry that market forces act as strongly on development as the technical and social forces cited above. In which case, it is not difficult to see that market forces might be more fundamentally risk-averse than users and their tools would like. It might be that that the design of social tools lies too much with technologists and with the use cases common among technically-minded users (read: geek culture?). Television programming is not up to television designers — should social media companies employ more content and creative types?

The challenge ahead of us will be to innovate social tools in ways that continue to capture and expand audience and uses. Somebody, somewhere, will always have to take a risk — with technology, design, functionality, and social practices. It’s my hope that we can mitigate these risks with smarter thinking about what works for people and why, supplementing our design choices with educated guesswork, relying less on market forces and business-minded entrepreneurship.

Adrian Chan

Adrian Chan is a social media expert and social interaction theorist at Gravity7. You can follow him on twitter at /gravity7

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