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The Evolution of Social Technology: Building Richer, More Engaged Lives, Online and Off

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2009 was the year that social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter went mainstream. According to Nielsen, people are now spending three times more time on social networks today than they did at the beginning of 2009. There's never been another analog for this level of growth in a single year.

Yet, this is only the beginning.

As we race to adopt social platforms connecting us to others in new ways for the first time, our expectations of online social experiences and what we want from them is evolving at an equally rapid pace. More of how we live our lives in the real world is morphing into our online social identities and how we use both established and emerging social technologies.

For example, Facebook connects us to people that we already know -- from school, growing up, and our friends from college. Twitter is a phenomenal service for keeping up with news and real-time events. LinkedIn is the place for us to present our professional identities to a professional network. Yet, as we become more engaged in these "one-size-fits-all" services that have a narrow but critical role to play in our lives, their very usage also increases the demand for a new breed of social experiences.

The Internet is moving from a race for eyeballs to a race for engagement. Where Facebook and Twitter represent a compelling stream of short messages distributed to large sets of users, we increasingly want the opportunity to dive deeper into social experiences dedicated to the things we care about most.

Those of us who are the most engaged are increasingly looking for richer, more immersive social experiences that give context to our interests and passions. It's no longer enough to simply fan someone or follow a Twitter account. As engaged and passionate people striving for fulfillment, we are looking for more. And we are getting it online in unique social experiences.

Along with our desire for new and better ways to engage with others around the things that truly matter to us is an increased expectation of what happens when we decide to invest our time online.

For example, the relationship between an artist and a fan is evolving into something richer and deeper than was ever possible before. The fan is emerging as a patron, a collaborator and a curator of art as we participate in the emerging social experiences created by artists or even fans themselves. We are not only commenting on videos, photos and new mixes but also adding our own creative contributions into a dynamic community of others who share the same passion for a particular genre or artist that we do. A single transaction is simply no longer relevant. We are now collaborating to create culture.

No Depression is a great example of this emerging evolution. What started out as a print 'zine in 1995 became a website and morphed again last year into a unique social network on Ning. Where fans of roots music once bought a 'zine and read the reviews, now they blog themselves and No Depression features the blog reviews that mirror the unique point of view of their most engaged readers on roots and Americana music.

A different example of this new equilibrium between artist and fan is Kickstarter. In the past, a person who supported investigative journalism subscribed to the New York Times or Washington Post. Today, this same person is a patron assisting in funding of an investigative journalist paying his way through Afghanistan and blogging each stop he makes along the way.

This same model of online relationship building is being used to drive wind energy funding, support people coping with life-threatening illnesses and activate untapped populations to elect the next president.

While social technologies make this possible, it's our desire as human beings to fully explore who we are through our interests, passions and identity that have us flocking to these new social experiences. We want to dive deeper and meet new people who share a love of the same things we do. In the past, we relied on the luck of geography to fulfill our need to connect with people around our interests. Today, all you need is an Internet connection to follow your dreams.

There is one last thing that makes social technologies different from the past. Just as we weave our way between our relationships with friends and family, our professional identity, our need for news and real-time events and our interests and passions, social technologies must reflect the same fluidity. People are multi-dimensional and social platforms are too. One service doesn't have to fail for another to succeed, as long as they all meet a necessary and specific aspect of what we want as human beings to realize our full potential.

The result is an even richer life, if we choose to embrace these new social technologies and live it -- both online and off.

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