Close-Up: 'We're on the cusp of a world where everything is social'

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 22 October 2010 12:00AM

The interconnectivity of everyone and everything means that all media is becoming social media, John V Willshire writes.

Last month, Apple launched Ping, a social network that allowed users to build networks of friends and professional musicians through iTunes. Sadly, it turns out that it's rubbish.

Is it rubbish? Well, yes, it must be rubbish. Because lots of people have been saying Ping is rubbish, and sharing their thoughts on its unequivocal rubbishness. They've rubbished it on Twitter, they've rubbished it on blogs, they've rubbished it in forums. Some people have even gone to the bother to make films to upload to YouTube rubbishing Ping.

It's like a new kid arrived at social network school, and the bigger kids nicked his lunch money, flushed his head down the loo and wrote "rubbish" across his forehead in permanent marker.

OK, so perhaps it's not surprising. If I asked you what you'd want from a music social network in 2010, a closed network locked inside a walled garden might not have been top of your list. To paraphrase The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, it's a social network hosted "in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'".

We'll come back to Douglas Adams later, though.

However, in a world that's evolving so, so quickly (YouTube is only five years old, remember), I'm inclined to think that the one thing we mustn't rush to do is judge. To try to make more sense of this, it's worth stepping back a bit to see the big picture.

The past year has seen both Apple and Google start to make plays in the social space - Apple with Ping and Game Centre, and Google with Wave and Buzz.

Now, the social phenomenon has caught them both napping a bit, and large companies find it harder than small ones to move quickly. But they're trying to work out how to build it in to what they do already. They're preparing for the future.

The problem is the media glare (both traditional and "social") they both operate under. When you're a start-up trying to build something new, nobody is watching.

When you're Apple or Google and you announce you're going to the canteen to see what's for lunch, there's a press conference at the till and a three-day post-mortem across the world on #cheeseandpickleFAIL.

We saw it last month when Eric Schimdt announced at Zeitgeist that they're "trying to take Google's core products and add a social component". Press coverage went through the roof, and commentators across the world offered 101,000 different interpretations of what this could mean for users, competitors, regulators, advertisers and so on. Everyone is always watching.

Which is hardly the ideal climate for innovation. If either Apple or Google had launched the first version of Facebook, we'd have probably laughed too. It's easy to knock people nowadays. They always said that "everyone's a critic". Thanks to technology, they're now all published critics too.

But rather than poking fun at those who've started down the social path and have taken a few wrong steps here and there, it's much more important to look at who isn't "trying to take core products and add a social component". And I'm not just thinking about technology companies. I'm thinking about every sort of company.

We're on the cusp of a world where everything is "social", from the car you drive to the toys your kids play with.

Ready for the slightly geeky bit? Good.

You may have heard of the "internet of things". It describes a world in which every machine, product and object is connected to the internet, and the interaction between them produces a myriad of weird and wonderful services and experiences for us.

Dave Evans, the chief futurist at Cisco Systems, recently stated that there are already 35 billion devices that, through some form or other, are connected to the internet, and more than a trillion "devices" by his estimate that could be hooked up: cars, livestock, kitchen appliances, pets ... the list is endless.

The important bit is that when they're connected, they'll talk to each other.

Let's take the car example. This year, Ford announced "MyFord Touch", the next generation of the Ford Sync program (powered by the Microsoft Auto platform). Among many other features, it has its own cellular modem built in. In tandem with the GPS navigation device, you've now got a car that knows exactly where it is ... and can talk to other things around it.

Want to know where the cheapest petrol is, or which restaurants are still serving breakfast? No problem. Want to see what songs others listen to most along your favourite drives? Easy-peasy.

Then we've got toys. Disney recently proposed that all toy manufacturers set out "to establish a set of industry development and technology standards for web-connected toys". They're looking to prevent a format war, and through making one standard for any toy that connects to the internet, decrease the costs of implementation for everyone while, at the same time, increasing playability for kids.

Think back to when you were a kid. It often irritated me when playing with two toy types that they didn't "work" together - Star Wars figures, for example, couldn't hold pieces of Lego. Copious amounts of Blu-tack solved that problem, of course, though, in doing so, it created another carpet-cleaning-based one for Mum. Sorry, Mum.

Anyway, one industry standard means any toys can talk to each other, whether to form alliances against the Evil Emperor or to see how often they've taken tea together. No doubt it'll connect to your Club Penguin account and earn you Coins for playing in the real world too.

All this will be natural for a generation who will grow up knowing that everyone and everything can talk to everyone and everything else; "playing nicely together" takes on a whole new meaning.

It will be so natural, in fact, that they won't have a name for it. Which brings us back to Adams who, in a 1999 essay, despaired of the term "interactivity" and its emergence as a fashionable term to use when talking about the new medium of "the web". He pointed out that before broadcast media, "we didn't need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don't (yet) need a special word for people with only one head".

Everything was "interactive". And in much the same way, when everything has "social layers" built into it, so it will be that nobody will talk about "social this" and "social that". Because why would you make something that didn't have "social" embedded?

So, then, back to Ping; it's just the first attempt to build a social layer into iTunes. It had more than a million members in the first 48 hours. Would you bet against it evolving inside iTunes until it's useful and fun? Not many folk have made money betting against Apple.

But maybe by then, "social" will be so naturally embedded into everything, we'll forget what all the fuss was about.

John V Willshire is the chief innovation officer at PHD.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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