In 2012 we saw social media officially become part of mainstream media. It is no longer "news" or a surprise that a story was broken via social media or that any outlet would engage and source from a number of available platforms like Twitter, Instagram or Reddit. In fact, it's expected -- if you don't -- you are behind the times.
This is not to say that tweets and Reddit comments must be on TV for them to have their affect. What we will see in 2013 is the monolith of mainstream media continue and officially subsume the new medium, making it part of their everyday plans and processes -- another set of new tools to leverage, among many. New "digital newswires" off which workplaces and new economies will be sustained.
However, a turn is in the works for social media -- the realization that it is not truly global -- the segmentation of these networks will continue with alternative domestic offerings of the mainstays we have come to know such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube that are promoted for specific domestic audiences. Examples such as China's Sina Weibo and Iran's YouTube alternative "Mehr" will start to become the norm, not the exception, for many nations.
The "Half truth"
In 2009-2011 social media was sold as the savior, it was the answer to everything, and for better or worse this was the de facto message. Many shunned the new platforms, pointing out their faults, the amount of meaningless content or that it could be anonymous -- how can someone be trusted when you don't know them? Further, nobody likes to be told that his or her experience is out of date or useless. What's wrong with the way things are done now?
Instead of completely replacing old tools/ways, people find use for the new ones that expands their skillsets and ability to communicate. You can now SMS, email, fax, call, tweet or Facebook someone -- oh and did I mention people still write letters? Each medium has its own attributes that make them the correct choice for a specific situation. Social media will become one of these many tools that people can use on a personal and work level.
More voices: The real revolution
To summarize the shift is to understand the following. Experts are no longer "experts;" the crowd is. The new expert is the person who has personal knowledge and knows how to engage with the crowd and find the niche experts in any situation. A good analogy is this, what is the best camera one can have? The one that is there when you need it. A person live tweeting an event with an old smartphone is the "expert" at that time -- what you need to do is communicate with them and the others doing the same thing. Traditional experts become brokers of media gathered from the crowd -- they become semi-Google's of social media information.
The true revolution in social media was the new voices. It is the realization of the Long Tail applied to communications, the promise of the Internet was realized; it accomplished what blogs alone could not. Anyone can now create and post content that is likely to be seen, and not sit on an unknown blog for months. People have been enabled, and some of those people are already changing the world.
New platforms will come and some current ones will go -- but the digital infrastructure has been set -- the shock value is gone. The world has adjusted to expectations and the launch of an app or service that would have "changed the world" five years ago, now gets a "hey, that's really cool."
Mainstream media and individuals will now leverage the digital infrastructure more intelligently -- creating a social media news wire, geo-locating Instagram pictures in real time on a map, engaging with the crowd for ideas or for a story. Media will continue to become more personal and allow for greater interaction. The platforms themselves will adjust to the new demands and expected uses -- while adding others.
Seems like a somewhat sad ending to one of the hottest stories of the past few years, right? It's not sad because it's not over. Innovation happens in increments not the "eureka" moments that make for good stories. The evolution will continue, and soon there will be no more social media -- just media. In light of all these advances, is the best yet to come? It appears that evolution will depend where you are accessing the Internet from.
The true barrier to innovation and exchange of information in the future will not be closed corporate ecosystems such as iTunes and Facebook, or spats between Twitter and Instagram. Nor will it be due to proprietary protocols -- rather -- the hurdle will close digital societies based on national boarders. Are you laughing out loud? You might be and with good reason. The narrative thus far is that the Internet is not controllable -- perhaps best summed up by the now famous "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" published online in 1996 by a founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, John Perry Barlow. The declaration begins with the following:
"Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather."
With the arrival of new technologies and communications platforms there is a trend, of openness moving to closed -- dubbed "The Cycle" as outlined by Tim Wu in The Master Switch. The question is, who is doing the closing and is it justified? China and Russia are the best examples of nation-states, which have practiced "Digital Protectionism" effectively, combating what the Chinese Foreign minister dubbed "Information Imperialism."
However the story does not begin and end with censorship, as they say in American politics "it's the economy, stupid" -- or to be more precise in this case, it's burgeoning Internet economies in new nations that need some help to get started.
Much as a nation would try and protect its domestic industries and allow them time to grow by applying import tariffs on foreign goods, China has grown a massive Internet industry by protecting its industry from outside competition. Whether that "protectionism" was outright like blocking Google, or making its domestic providers load faster for China's web surfers -- it is effective. Baidu, Ren Ren, and Sina Weibo are Chinese success stories -- with each of them publicly listed on American stock exchanges and garnering much attention. Baidu's stock price is an excellent example of what protectionist measures can do, shortly after Google announced it was considering pulling out of China in 2010, Baidu's stock went up 50 percent.
Further, Iran has recently introduced its own version of YouTube titled Mehr -- a video site that will be in line with that government's belief of free speech. While censorship is no doubt a big reason such alternatives are given, it is also a matter of sovereignty, when it comes to information that its citizens have access to.
The End of the Global Public Sphere
Nation states will continue to clamp down via censorship and more subtle means such as throttling traffic speeds. However, success will only come to those nations that give their users a viable alternative to the mainstay services the majority of the Internet uses. They must create industries not offer simple one-off alternatives and that takes time, and patience.
Will these closed national Internets be full proof? Of course not. However, they will be the default for the vast majority of users and only those savvy enough to evade them will be able to do so. Regular users will opt for the more accessible alternative -- the domestic one.
The future of social media and the potential of the "global public sphere" are at stake -- the question becomes "Who hosts the discussion?"
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