Pandora’s box: Facebook, Google+, and the future of social networking

I’ve been watching the discussions around the launch of Google+ with interest. In the press there’s a definite “Coke vs Pepsi”, “Microsoft vs Apple” flavor to the discussion…I don’t think this is relevant, as much as the press seems to like to hype, speculate and crow over every blow-by-blow “win” or “lose” as if it were a football game.

For me the relevant paradigm shift is that Facebook’s monopoly has been broken; Google has opened Pandora’s box, and I think social networking will be revolutionized by it.

Because it won’t be about choosing which one you use, and then convincing all your friends to migrate. Everyone will just sign up for both – as it’s free (more on that later) there’s no need to choose.

But my friends are all on ABC.com!” you say. (Ok, Facebook).

A hurdle, initially, as you need two apps, browsers, or however you interact with your social networking site. A royal pain indeed (and really very Web 1.0, if I do say so myself).

And let’s not forget, Facebook and Google+ are only one flavor of current social networking sites. Everything from Linkedin to YouTube, Tumblr to Delicious, Twitter to StumbleUpon etc is a form of social networking – and we currently use each of these alone, with nary an integration in sight. Which is contributing to why it seems – well, overwhelming. Even to those of us who live and breathe this industry.

Until there’s an app developed that eliminates the need to interact on those sites / apps only. It will pull the relevant data you specify in the manner you want it delivered, when you want it delivered, and in the format you want to interact with it. In other words, someone will develop an uber app which will let you personalize how you interact with other people digitally.

Because (imposed) walled gardens and dictated formats ultimately don’t work in the digital world.

I always did like Rosseti

Concurrently, I predict that as people find faults with Google+ (the lack of anonymity being one that annoys me personally, and how insidiously it is integrated with the rest of the data Google has on you) just as they did with Facebook’s privacy issues, personalized modular type social networking “networks” will emerge, where you can tailor your own features and functionality and roll it out to your own network. A more drastic version of Google+’s circles – where you pull various desired modules together into a customized interface, and network with people across not just computer/phone based interaction points, but across all channels.

Because increasingly communication will not be typing based, there is also voice, video, and a plethora of other ways to communicate your thoughts, verbally, aurally, visually.

Which leads to the subject of another blog post, about how human/computer interface is changing – but I leave that for another day.

I also think people will start paying a subscription-based fee to engage in social networking that gives them the opportunity to control how they interact; the current “free because of advertising” model is only one option, but I believe as people will increasingly demand control over their privacy, actually paying for the privilege of keeping their information personal will outweigh the cost.

So – like Pandora’s box, which also included Hope (and which Pandora left inside the box after snapping the lid shut and letting all the evils escape), there is a potential upside to all this. Currently the giants of the industry are controlling how we use social networking – and we have little to say. But ultimately increased fragmentation will lead to more consumer control. The box hasn’t been snapped shut yet.

The Borogoves are a’ Mimsying: Marketing in a hyper-connected world

I’ve been thinking a lot about the long term impact an ”instantaneous, on demand” life. Imagine that from birth, you never had to wait for anything, and had everything you wanted delivered immediately. News, entertainment, connecting with your “group” – everything.  Never getting lost. The collective knowledge of the human race there for you at all times. How would this shape your assumptions and expectations?

Because this is what’s happening to the generation being born. My nephew is almost 2. What struck me is how – without any real language skills yet (my sister would disagree) he tells her what he wants to watch, and when.  He “requests” Blue Clues over, and over (and over) again. The concept of watching something on schedule – and waiting for it, and not choosing which episode, is completely unfamiliar to him. If it’s not on when he wants it, he gets very, very angry.

So clearly, his brain is being trained to work differently than yours or mine. It reminds me of the 1943 short story “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Lewis Padgett, where an alien toy from the future is found by children and in the course of playing with them, they become “re-educated” to think differently.

Reality for him is a world where he will be completely connected to everyone he’s ever known, and (personalized) information, interaction, engagement, and entertainment will be fed to him how he likes it, and never more than a few seconds away.

What assumptions will he develop – as inherent to his interaction with the world as breathing? How will this quintessentially change the relationship he has with products and brands? And from a business point of view, how do you make sure your products and services are the “right” ones so that your company can successfully deliver what he will not just demand, but expect without thinking?

Well, for one: immediate gratification is a given. Patience will no longer be a virtue, when waiting is never necessary. So everything must be available immediately, and immediately relevant. This means devices that are never off, always connected to a information delivery infrastructure (10G?) with enough bandwidth (no doubt, an antiquated term by then) to deliver immediately.

It also means that accessing masses of data and instantaneously extrapolating what he likes, then projecting what he should like. Ultimately, continuing to learn who he is, then fine tuning that knowledge at an algorithmic rate will be a requirement, not an option.

Brands / companies will need to mine/model all the data they have about your preferences and past interactions to instantaneously tailor on-the-fly experiences for you. And woe betide the brand that guesses wrong – it will feel as inauthentic to him as a “real” inauthentic interaction does to you today.

And my guess is, he’ll have short patience for a brand interaction that doesn’t feel right. So branding in the future will be about creating entire experiences – including real time interactions (suggestions, whimsy, connections) just like a real friend would. A virtual concierge, as it were.

It will require a conflux of inputs, working together (and seamlessly) to create the experience he expects, and demands. So to hijack the traditional “Who, What, Where, When, Why, How” model, this is what the brave new world of branding and marketing will have to master:

Becoming interactive with him will require that your brand becomes a “friend”, someone who knows what you and your friends like, what you’re talking about, and how to be there in the right manner. You’ll need to deliver the information you want him to see and engage with in a manner that he wants:

  • Does he prefer text? Voice? Articles? RSS feeds? Audio? Something else? A mix of these? What are his preferences? When does he interact the most?
  • Snippets of info throughout the day? Is he an information snacker, grabbing bits in between other activities, or does he prefer to set aside a stretch of time to catch up on everything?
  • Does this behavior change depending on whether it’s a week day or weekend? Is he more receptive in the morning, or night? Can you ensure that you’re there at the right time?
  • Where is he? Close by? Is the message immediately relevant (is he nearby)? How close? Half an hour? Half a week?
  • Has he done something relevant in the past? Can you discern a pattern and overlay it on the present?
  • Who are his friends? Influencers? Who does he rely on for information? Opinion? Does he listen to different groups of friends depending on the situation, or product (fashion friends, tech friends, etc)?
  • What communities is he a part of? Active? Passive? Are these relevant to your brand? Who is he connected to there? This is the social networking part of the equation, where you mine his activity and network for insights an influence.

The friends/connection influencer role will increasingly be critical, as the only way for a brand to reach a consumer in the future will be through engagement with them AND the people they listen to. I personally believe the “push” model of advertising that we’ve all grown up with (billboards, print ads, television) will continue to atrophy in influence as people who’ve only ever, in the face of overwhelming messaging / branding, listen to “trusted advisors” – their own connections.

The list can go on, but obviously things are increasingly difficult as a marketer. It’s no longer about your brand, your market, your positioning, your message, and placing your message – it’s all about creating *true* context, meaning, authenticity. On your customer’s terms. I’m calling it Six Dimension Marketing. Marshall McLuhen said the medium is the message – in this case, the time, place, and context are too.

The brand challenge is/will be to facilitate meaningful engagements, and keep it going. Because by continuous listening and learning, the opportunity exists for a long and fruitful relationship. The barriers to creating a meaningful relationship with customers will be higher, but so will the barriers to exit.

So once again, technology will have the opposite effect many expected; instead of being a a great equalizer of opportunity, it will take more money/savvy / strategic creativity than ever to stay competitive….although I welcome seeing some of the “In Culture Marketing” (grassroots) that will emerge, that smaller brands can take advantage of (as well as some of the savvier larger brands). We’re just at the beginning of truly disruptive times for how business is “done” – all the things we “know” and grew up with are changing, and while it scares some, I personally find it exhilarating. Strap in for the ride!

Reality, what is it really? Exploring Augmented Reality

I love the concept of augmented reality. I mean, isn’t watching Avatar in 3D Imax so much better than the gray reality when you come home to look at your walls?

Don’t you love the colors! – and can’t you feel your muscles twitching as you mentally jump from psychedelically colored palm frond to palm frond along with the Navi?  When I got home after the movie, all I could do is stare at my (boring) walls and wonder “where are my white floating squids?” Uch. Reality is tough, gray, cold – well, “real”.

But seriously, I think augmented reality has the potential to be the next mass (and I mean, MASS) addiction after social networking.

Currently every discussion around it seems to focus on the information it will bring…as interesting as it would be to have directions overlaid onto my wanderings (directly into my retina, or indeed – the optic nerve at some point) I think another obvious application is more akin to gaming in nature.

Your neighbors, the Smiths

Imagine you’re just in one of those moods, and instead of having to look at all the “regular” faces you pass on the street (gray, dour) you could instead decide that today is “sea monkey day”. Seriously, you’re in the mood for sea monkeys. So you program your “sea monkey setting” into your yet-to-be-determined data input module and voila! Everyone has a sea monkey head.

It’s the ultimate version of beer goggles.

The program could generate facial differences by interpolating from real faces, or by pulling data from various public profiles (the sentiment analysis of your current Facebook status interpolates: “bad mood”) and an unhappy (but potentially, comical) Sea Monkey face is projected. Etc. etc. You get the picture.

An additional idea would be being able to set your own markers so that AR programs interpret your data in a certain way that day. In a flirty mood / want to chat? Advertise with a certain color (how about, green face = available). We could color code the world and communicate without any words at all. After all, if our information from a wide variety of sources is going to be broadcast anyway (ref: http://lindaricci.com/01/04/not-just-a-pretty-face), why not control what we put out there in this way?

This could be seriously addictive. And seriously lucrative from an entertainment merchandising standpoint. Think about it: Now I don’t have to just leave the Navi behind when I get home, I can superimpose licensed Navi images on my whole day. All I need is some giant pond fronds (why not my office chair??)

It makes sense as part of the “personalization” trend: everyone wants (information) how they want it, in the way they want it. How difficult is it to imagine that this will also include superimposing our own desires for what “reality” will look like that day?

Once it happens would you ever go back to just seeing things the way they “are”?  I don’t think so.