As we bid adieu to a tumultuous 2011 and welcome a hopefully apocalypse-free 2012, I've put together a short list of trends to keep an eye on in the social media universe:
1) The slowing growth of Facebook in the U.S. and its skyrocketing growth in the developing world.
At the risk of sounding like a stodgy curmudgeon at the tender age of 25, I'll point out that when I joined Facebook way back in 2004, it was known to us young whippersnappers as The Facebook.
In the ensuing years since its debut and subsequent global explosion, the ubiquitous social portal has expanded in every conceivable direction. Its growth, however, has recently shown signs of slowing, especially in the United States. Now that rising giants like Brazil, India and your grandparents are jumping on the bandwagon, that should be enough to trigger a mass exodus from the once-hip social network.
Then there's the segment of longtime users, including yours truly, who have grown tired of Facebook's relentless shenanigans. The algorithm controlling my News Feed condenses my apparent social universe to an ever-shrinking handful of people with whom I have almost no regular contact in the real world. Live chat is basically a tractor beam that traps you into keeping a Facebook tab open at all times. And heaven forbid you try to ignore Facebook altogether, as I tried to do during most of December; a series of automated reminder emails dutifully warned me that I've missed out on some "popular" developments. (It turns out that during my selfish withdrawal, two of my friends changed their profile photos and someone posted on someone else's wall.)
Let's be clear: I don't see Facebook as inherently evil. I'm a bit disturbed, however, by its unheeded intrusion into our neurochemical pathways. We've all felt that endorphin rush and subsequent crash after someone "Likes" your pithy status update. Am I the only one who is tired of wondering why everyone else's highly manipulated virtualized life looks so much more interesting than mine?
Prediction for '12: Facebook grows up, loses some of its youthful charm -- and its user base.
2) Web video as a viable form of media.
Video has been the quirky but ignored step-child of the social media revolution. Until very recently, web video basically consisted of rehashed material from other sources or one-off viral videos of fuzzy kittens playing Beethoven. A few major developments are thankfully underway that will finally bring web video up to speed as a viable medium.
YouTube is pouring millions of dollars into nurturing premium content and curating an in-house collection of producers and stars. Traditional broadcast stalwarts such as PBS are investing in engaging video content that is produced exclusively for the web. The success of web-exclusive studios such as College Humor and Revision3, whose flagship shows regularly draw in millions of views across multiple seasons, suggests that there may even be room for thriving independent studios alongside the major networks.
Prediction for '12: As advertisers turn their attention to mobile and web audiences, profitability will finally become a reality for web-only programs.
3) Following a year of Facebook and Twitter-fueled protests, governments are brushing up on their social media skills.
2011 was the sort of year that will earn a bold-ed heading in future editions of world history textbooks. The cascading revolutions that toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and sparked tensions elsewhere in the Middle East were abetted in large part by the use of social media networks as channels for organizing protest and disseminating information. But the honeymoon for social media and political protest may be drawing to an abrupt end.
Governments are wisely sharpening their social media skills at both the intelligence-gathering and policy-setting levels. They've caught on to the fact that open social networks are basically free intelligence networks that can be easily mined for information on civil unrest. While protestors in Tunisia and Egypt were able to coordinate demonstrations beneath a technologically-aloof government's radar, looters in the United Kingdom were surprised to find incriminating photos on a Flickr feed organized by the Metropolitan Police.
Prediction for '12: Until the hazy legal doctrines surrounding the relationship between law enforcement, social networks and end users are clarified, expect many more intriguing intersections between the three in 2012.
4) Social media startups will discover that they actually have to earn money to survive.
If you're a daily reader of Mashable or TechCrunch, you'd think every shiny tech startup is headed for a $150 million valuation. A new photoblogging social network for dalmatian owners! A mobile payments app for disbarred attorneys! A freemium analytics platform for model train hobbyists! And, of course, no brandcuffs!
No one seems to ask the big question: is there even a critical mass of users to make these services viable?
Prediction for '12: As the industry behemoths -- Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. -- begin to swallow up and incorporate every niche feature offered by smaller platforms, it will be harder and harder in 2012 for the next "revolutionary" social media tool to break through and earn staying power.
5) Niche-based aggregator sites will continue to thrive.
The surging tide of new web content, continuously disseminated by everyone from staff writers at The New York Times to your smartphone-equipped cousin, has made it increasingly frustrating to stay abreast of relevant and worthwhile content.
Not surprisingly, aggregator communities like Reddit have exploded in popularity, allowing users to subscribe, digest, and respond to the content they find most meaningful. The voting-driven ranking system isn't perfect; but like democracy itself, it is reliable enough to be effective and flawed enough to keep things interesting.
Sites like Reddit have also evolved into platforms for aggregating support for hot-button political and social issues. Case in point: following fervent calls-to-action posted on Reddit's homepage, the domain host GoDaddy rescinded their support for the controversial legislation known as SOPA, or the Stop Online Privacy Act.
Prediction for '12: The line between politics in the real world and the online world continues to blur when a viable presidential candidate openly campaigns on Reddit.
Follow Raymond Schillinger on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rayschillinger