The Future of Social

Nicki Vance | Originally published September 30, 2013

In the past few years, social has become a much bigger part of our lives. But has it made our lives much better? Or just given us a new platform to express our most analog impulses? Citizen’s Nicki Vance shares her thoughts.

In the design community, social is a very hot topic. Every client knows it’s a critical ingredient in their marketing and design mix, but there’s still relatively little consensus about how to create social experiences that last. In the past decade, we’ve seen sites capture the imagination of the online masses, then wither and die. Transplanting social features from their native networks to new environments is just as dicey. To wrap our heads around this phenomenon, a group of designers at Citizen — including CXO Sce Pike, UX Director Quinn Simpson, UX Designer Simon Vansintjan, and myself — decided to dive into social’s short history to identify what aspects are truly valuable for users. When we know what functions make a platform sticky, we can improve our design strategy by calibrating social experiences to seamlessly integrate into our everyday lives.

Looking Back at Social Networks

At Citizen, we’ve long been interested in web-based applications that are generally considered social networks. That’s a loose term, so we expanded that definition to encompass common communication tools to broadly examine online social behavior. After tossing around lots of theories, Simon and I started from scratch: brainstorming every social media network we could remember, mapping them on a timeline, and considering how they influenced one another through borrowed ideas and integrated services. We identified key turning points, like MySpace shifting its emphasis to music or Facebook introducing its Timeline interface, and linked them to concurrent cultural trends. We realized that, in many ways, social isn’t a trend in technology; it’s an expression of fundamental human behavior. We love to try new things and we love to communicate. Those experiences help us define our identity and feel connected to others. So social is a natural extension of that impulse. It just happens to be facilitated by technology.

Our Analog Impulse to Share

When we look back at the earliest predecessors of Facebook, such as the aggregated texts of the florilegium, we see that people simply like to share, whether brief exchanges or longer, more in-depth communications. They also like to control who they share with, tailoring their messages to individuals, groups, or the public at large. And while there’s a whole range of apps out there to let us communicate however and with whomever we like, the platforms keep changing because of our innate desire for new experiences. Still, our research yielded some concrete insights about the current and future states of social. Advances in social apps tend to coincide with general Internet advances. For example, higher bandwidth supported massive media integration and the rise of video, spreading out interactions and APIs to other sites and facilitating one-click sharing through the ubiquitous “like” button and other plug-ins. We also observed how the convergence of mobile and social has led to the popularity of asynchronous interactions such as Twitter and Snapchat. As users unchain themselves from a fixed desktop experience, their use of social has become freer, too, emphasizing updates that are ephemeral, momentary, and on-the-go.

Where Social Is Headed

From this vantage, we expect social to continue to evolve in relationship to advancements in mobile form factors. When mobile becomes a hub for the Internet of Things or begins to look like Google Glass, social apps will have to adapt to fit. But it’s also important to note that, even as technology repackages the social experience, it still appeals to our most engrained social habits and is subject to the same limitations. We may be able to expand our networks faster and communicate with friends both near and far with equal ease, but we still hit capacity at about 150 people, online or off. From tracking the history of social media, while taking into account real world cultural factors that influence virtual usage, we don’t think the future of social mobile will be exclusively driven by emerging technologies. Instead, we expect the next generation of apps will be those that precisely align with the functions we actually value. That could mean apps that help us control who in our networks sees messages or make momentary updates even easier to compose and share. What we do know beyond a doubt is that human curiosity ensures we’ll always be eager to try out new ways of connecting with one another.

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