Imagining the Future of Social Networking
Now that we have a social network for one billion people in the world (Facebook), a social network for 150 of your most intimate friends (Path), and a social network just for your significant other (Pair); a social network for videos (YouTube), a social network for photos (Instagram) and a social network for status updates (Twitter); a social network for professionals (LinkedIn), a social network for curators (Pinterest), and a social network from Google (Google+); not to mention a parallel universe of social networks in China (Renren, Weibo, Youku); it seems almost impossible to imagine how the social network of the future will be different from the rich diversity we have today.
Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent
Today’s social networks know what our and our friends’ interests, intentions and consumption behaviors are; know how to recognize patterns in our behaviors and contextualize them against our friends, others like us, or the world; know how to track and federate our identity across the web and across the world; know how to serve us status updates, news, entertainment and ads that we are most likely to consume; even know how to manipulate our behavior by tapping into our gameplaying instincts with challenges, points, levels and badges. Today’s social networks seem omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent; it’s almost shocking that a Facebook-Google-LinkedIn-Twitter hybrid hasn’t already evolved into a dystopian version of singularity, subjugated nation states, and enslaved all humanity. It seems easy to imagine then how things might become worse from here, more difficult to imagine how things might become better.
Possible Futures: A 2X2 Matrix
Predictions are easy to make, because almost no one expects them to turn out to be correct, and they almost always don’t. I find it much more meaningful to look at possibilities instead, scenarios that are likely or unlikely, positive or negative, worlds that may or may not come into existence. I love the 2X2 matrix, so I’ll use one which is preferred by futurists: likely/ unlikely scenarios on the X-axis and negative/ positive scenarios on the Y-axis. I think of the likely/ negative quadrant as the default, as our world seems to devolve into chaos, when left to its own devices; if we reach out for our better selves, we might create a better world, in the likely/ positive quadrant; if we are lucky, we might even exceed our expectations and approach the unlikely/ positive quadrant; and if we are unlucky, we might mess things up, and find ourselves in the unlikely/ negative quadrant.
Like William Gibson famously said: “The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” So, one way to look at the future, without going into the domain of fantasy and science fiction, is to look at the very near future, perhaps even the present, and extrapolate from elements that seem to have arrived from the future. Here, then, are four possible futures of social networking, in a near future so near that it could be the present itself.
The Likely/ Negative Future
Let’s start with the likely/ negative quadrant, the one we are thinking of as the default. Facebook(-RenRen-YouTube-Youku-Fox-Reuters) and Apple(-Amazon-Disney-Penguin-Viacom-Virgin) are locked in a pitched battle to become the leading media and experience network, while Google(-Microsoft-Skype-LinkedIn) is focused on the enterprise experienceware market, and Alibaba(-WalMart-Citi-Weibo-Twitter) has the highest valuation with its experiential commerce business, but all four are worried about how upstart SuperEgo(-Orange-AmEx-PayPal-Zynga) is beginning to control the identity market with its EgoExperience reward program and a series of recent acquisitions. Consumers accumulate Ego points by buying experiences from Alibaba, consuming branded experience from Facebook and Apple, or performing well on monthly Google work experience appraisals, which they can redeem to consume more branded experiences, buy more experiences or sign up for longer hours of work experience. If they don’t meet their monthly minimum quotas on either of the three types of experiences, their EgoExperience rating goes down and their access to premium experiences is limited. In extreme cases, membership from the EgoExperience reward program is revoked, severely limiting the consumer’s long-term prospects of buying and consuming experiences.
The Likely/ Positive Future
Let’s now look at the likely/ positive quadrant, which shares many of the characteristics with the likely/ negative quadrant, with a few important differences. Facebook and Apple are still the dominant media and experience networks, but they are also open platforms for millions of experience creators, who share their experiences under an ExperienceCommons license, so that others can remix them and share them forward. Google is still the leader in the enterprise experienceware market, but it works closely with TEDExperience and WikiExperiencia Foundation to help millions of professionals co-create an open source ExperienceBase of the world’s best learning resources. Alibaba still has the highest market capitalization, but more than half its profits come from its WholeExperience brand, which sells meaningful experiences. SuperEgo is still powerful, but it is under constant scrutiny from consumer rights groups and it hasn’t yet been able to tie up with Google work experience appraisals. And, the hottest new startup in the Bangalore-Shanghai-Tokyo experience-corridor is ExperienceZen, which creates bespoke minimalist experiences for more than half a billion experience-weary users, by helping them block out most branded experiences, focus on the most meaningful work and life experiences and even completely switch off from the ExperienceNet for two weeks every year, while maintaining a respectable EgoExperience rating.
The Unlikely/ Positive Future
In the unlikely/ positive quadrant, the internet has evolved into a powerful open source public network called Mirror, managed by the Mirror Foundation, with wide representation from government, business and civil society. Almost everyone in the world is on Mirror, via smartphone-like MirrorScopes, and Mirror is deeply integrated in all aspects of our life. All news and entertainment is created and consumed on it, all communication is routed via it, and all business models are based on it. MirrorCode is designed so that others can create their own MirrorWorlds upon Mirror, but all MirrorWorlds share Mirror’s core concern with humanity’s spiritual progress. Mirror is designed so that it individually optimizes for what’s good for each one of us, what builds our character, what leads to our long-term happiness, what helps us approach our best self. If I have just broken up with my girlfriend, it will subtly hint that I should get back in touch with my high-school sweetheart who is also single again. If I need to lose weight, it will point me towards healthy food and lifestyle options on MirrorSearch and show me MirrorStreams of my friends practicing yoga. If I ask it a direct question and it feels that I am not ready for the answer, it will even hold back the answer from me, and ask me to take tests that will help me prepare myself for it. Mirror will even throw challenges at me that build my physical, mental, emotional and social resilience, and reward me for completing those challenges by giving me new MirrorPowers and unlocking higher levels of MirrorConsciousness for me. The range of news, content and experiences available on Mirror are rich and diverse, as most content is created under a MirrorCommons license so that others can build upon it. Top ten lists are almost unheard of because each person consumes content based on their unique taste, but artists make a good living because they are generously supported by loyal patrons. Scam-artists and virus-mongers sometimes succeed in gaming Mirror’s code, but, in general, businesses that create meaningful experiences tend to do best on Mirror.
The Unlikely/ Negative Future
Let’s now look at the unlikely/ negative quadrant, which shares many of the characteristics with the unlikely/ positive quadrant, with a few important differences. Mirror is as powerful as before, but Mirror Foundation is now controlled by the American and British governments, supported by the Resurgent Universal Church, and a consortium of multinational conglomerates. The governments wants to use Mirror as a tool for propaganda to weaken China, the church wants to enforce its regressive moral code on the entire world, and the multinationals want to trigger subconscious urges that compel consumers to buy more mindlessly. They try to make subtle changes to the core MirrorCode to serve their needs, but MirrorCode is resilient and rejects these changes. The Mirror Foundation then starts a full-scale war on MirrorCode, by creating a series of viruses that threaten to undermine its core structure. China retaliates and tries to take control of Mirror through its own virus attacks. The European Union and Japan refuse to participate in the MirrorWar and try to create firewalls to protect their own part of Mirror. Brazil and India first try to broker peace between America and China, then create an antivirus to protect the MirrorCode core. However, multi-lateral peace initiatives, firewalls, and antiviruses all fail in the end, and Mirror fragments into a thousand pieces, each one an island of code disconnected from the others. Without Mirror, nation states break down into city-states, the major religions disintegrate into warring factions and multinationals go bankrupt. When the dust settles after a decade, the world reorganizes itself into disconnected city-states, local folk religions and distributed global subcultures that have no way to speak to each other.
The Different Between Utopia and Dystopia
There are probably infinite possible futures and these are merely four possibilities amongst them but I hope that you see that relatively few things need to change for us to end up with the utopian positive futures or the dystopian negative futures, namely: what does society value and how much, what’s commercial and what’s in the commons, who wields power and to what end. Dystopias, after all, are utopias with a few critical fatal flaws and the biggest fatal flaw, perhaps, is humanity’s spiritual progress lagging behind the society’s technological progress. Let this, then, be our touchstone for making choices that might lead to the more preferable of these possible worlds: are we only thinking of our technological progress, or also of our spiritual progress?