Over the course of this week we are running a new blog post every day to launch our latest analysis of the future of social networks. The project has been led by Alex Steer in our New York office. In the next four days he will be outlining our findings here – Andrew Curry

#1: Seeing through uncertainty

Alex Steer writes: Thinking back a decade, you have to pinch yourself. In 2001, when internet penetration ran at 10% or less even in advanced markets, online social networks barely existed. Today, they are the most widely-used online services, with membership of the largest networks reaching well into the hundreds of millions. Today Facebook has around 720 million members, and China’s Tencent QQ instant messaging network over 600 million – figures that are likely to be out of date if you read this more than a few weeks in the future. In the US, Facebook alone accounted for almost 9% of all website use in 2010, overtaking Google as the most-visited site.

If it’s been a dynamic decade for online social networking, it’s also been a disruptive one. The rise of networking giants such as Facebook and Twitter can seem inevitable in hindsight, but in practice there’s been a rapid turnover of winners and losers. MySpace, which at its peak claimed membership by one in four Americans, was sold by News Corporation in June 2011 for a fraction of the price it paid, its active user base collapsing. For those who look at Facebook in the 2010s and see nothing but runaway growth, MySpace should be a reminder that present scale is no guarantee of future success.

For businesses, brands, and marketers, this can feel like unstable ground. How do we know which networks will be around and thriving in a couple of year’s time, let alone ten? How do we decide how best to design services or communications in an unpredictable environment? And, in trying to back the right horse, how do we know whose advice to take?

There’s no shortage of advice on ‘doing social’, even if much of it is contradictory. But it’s wrong to think that the social networking category is defined only by Facebook or Twitter. The category is broad and often ill-defined even by experts – but at its heart a social network is any online service that lets users interact and form social connections. The choices which users make when they are online are a better guide to how usage and behaviour might change than the technology.

For this reason, to help think about social online behaviour, we have identified six Pivot Points – points of tension based on the choices people make when they engage online, and the conflicts they experience – that will shape the future of social networks. These decision points – around scale, privacy, specificity, pervasiveness, utility and worldview – can help businesses and brands anticipate the future in a category they cannot predict. On this blog, over the course of this week, we will be exploring these.

This is the first of four posts by Alex Steer introducing our latest analysis of the future of social networks. The second post, on ‘the social life of social networks’, will run tomorrow. The word cloud at the top of this post was generated by Talent Genius and is used with thanks.

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