March 14, 2009

Charlene Li Predicts Social Networking Will Be Ubiquitous, "Like Air"

Charlene Li, formerly of Forrester, and now plugging away at the Altimeter Group, spoke to a packed house at the SXSW conference today on the topic of the future of social networks. And if her predictions are to come true, we will some day wonder why we ever needed to go to dedicated networks to be social, as more social elements are weaved into everything we do - from news consumption and advertising to e-commerce sites and television. Her prediction? "Social networks will be like air - everywhere around us."

Charlene's presentation featured example mock-ups of how could show you reviews from just your friends, and not the world at large, and another with the New York Times, assuming that if you were trusted and knew influencers, you could attract a higher CPM from advertisers, thanks to your own individual value.

But don't expect this to happen right away. As Charlene reminded us, it took 20 years from Tim Berners-Lee writing up the foundation of the World Wide Web to the intricate social networks we have today, and while we now live in a place where "the tools are so powerful, you can fill out a form to connect to anyone in the world", as she relayed, there's still a tremendous amount of work to do. She adds, "It is very early, so patience is needed."

In her presentation, Charlene said that in order for social networks to become "like air", you would need three major elements, namely:
  1. Indentity - Who you are
  2. Contacts - Who you know
  3. Activities - What you do (in the context of those relationships)
Assuming social networking can become transparent and invisible and everywhere, like air, the next steps, according to Charlene, are to:
  1. Evaluate where social makes sense. When can data and content be integrated in the experience? Leverage existing identity and social graphs where your audience already is, and get permission policies aligned with an open strategy.
  2. Get your back-end data in order. Remove multiple sign-ins, registration and profiles for people. Have a single identity for customers and prospects.
  3. Prepare to integrate social networks into your organization.
Charlene recommended rethinking the way we approach social networks and social gatherings. As she accurately pointed out, conferences like SXSW feature many people with very similar interests, but the likelihood that we knew these people by name, or as friends, would be very low. She suggested being able to find out - in advance - who would be attending such events. How could social networks make life events better than they already are today?

Today's many announcements from Facebook and their Connect platform signify a big move of how social networking can become like air. The service is trying to deliver single-login sign-on to all sites. Of course, Facebook Connect is running head to head with the Open Stack platform in parallel, supported by practically everyone else, including MySpace ID, Google FriendConnect, LinkedIn and the OpenSocial movement. But while the two are not yet compatible, there is a shared vision to simplify today what are complex issues, including separating a person's multiple identities, like that of the personal life and business life (primarily broken out by e-mail address), and how you can avoid befriending the same people over and over again on each new network. She called this process "laborious".

In time, she speculated that social data on the social graph could help make privacy and permissions easier to manage, adding "context makes content privacy easier, and social signals provide a shorthand for our mental map of relationships." And while these elements are not yet pervasive, her conclusions had no doubts - as she said, "It is inevitable. It will happen. But it is going to take time."