The evolution of social networking sites: the rise of content-centric platforms which favour the perpetual present.

Socio-technical trends and their underlying theoretical perspectives shed light on likely developments in store for mediated communication. Vyacheslav Polonski finds that in the coming years, new design norms will overhaul current metaphors, marking a shift from profile-centric to content-centric interactions. In the increasingly ephemeral live-streams of receiving and broadcasting information, Polonski predicts we will be able to transcend the stale antinomy of online and offline lives.

Over the past two decades, one of the most dynamic developments related to digital media has been the rise of social network sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram. Since the launch of the first social applications in the late 1990s, they attracted over a billion active users worldwide, many of whom have incorporated digital social interactions into their everyday lives.

Image credit: Jason Howie (CC-BY)

Today, social technologies dominate the zeitgeist, spawning new communities, where there were once just distributed individuals, and amplifying the size and significance of various publics. This has set the stage for unprecedented collective mobilisations, protest movements and open-source projects that have left their marks in the brief history of the Internet. Given the current buzz around social media, 2014 is expected to be a critical period for the genre of social network sites, when both users and businesses will have to cope with the challenges posed by the changing nature of social interactions, design choices and privacy norms, as the Internet continues to rewire more and more aspects of our social lives.

The first major development is the rapidly evolving design of networked communication platforms. From the past we know that a majority of humans have an anxious relationship to bits and bytes. Lacking an intuitive understanding of the abstract, binary, invisible data structures underneath, we have come up with physical metaphors and analogies to make sense of this complexity. This is why new media technologies have often taken the familiar visual interfaces of their predecessors to help users adjust to their associated novel consumption patterns. The widespread use of such skeuomorphic metaphors could be seen in a series of design choices, such as the carryover of the typical theatrical proscenium arch to modern cinemas, and the integration of familiar, hardware-like design elements into mobile applications.

Similarly, this can be seen in the seemingly omnipresent use of the word friend or, more generally, the metaphor of friendship as a social cue that signifies connection in a networked world. While disagreement remains around the usefulness of skeuomorphism, it is evident that a more advanced understanding of new technologies and digitized interactions would eventually eliminate the need for such metaphors. Thus, in the coming years, it is expected that new design norms will eventually overhaul past metaphors, in order to support more communication-oriented affordances and lower the barriers to interactions. A key design choice heralding the beginnings of the changing nature of virtual encounters of the next years is the emphasis on transitory technologies. For instance, many social network sites currently follow the established metaphor of the photo-album – in an abstract sense, a static collection of images exhibited to an audience that can be viewed by any member of the audience in an asynchronous fashion. Now, let’s look at the massively popular photo and video sharing service Snapchat. At its core, its automatic self-destruction feature renders images ephemeral, as they vanish only few seconds after being seen by a bounded audience (which is reminiscent of Snapchat’s ghostly logo).

As a consequence, a platform design choice like this has a powerful effect on our perception of digital interactions: it divorces the digital photograph from the comforting notion of permanence of the image. This establishes a greater degree of temporal co-presence, encouraging more real-time interactions, and leading participants to ascribe more meaning to their ephemeral encounters. To paraphrase Wired magazine’s founding editor Kevin Kelly, the web is becoming more synchronous and “alive”: if an interaction isn’t happening in real-time, it doesn’t count. Thus, the substantial shift from experience-for-exhibition to experience-for-itself will be integral to the platform design choices of future social network sites.As these socio-technical dynamics begin to unfold, users of social network sites will be presented with new ways and channels for performing their identities online. In this regard, the second major development will be the granular verticalization of self-presentational practices – from unified presence on  one major platform to a diverse range of networked communication platforms. As the expert on the philosophy of information Luciano Floridi remarks, social network sites are egopoietic technologies that facilitate the construction of a presentational self for others, significantly affecting who we are, who we think we are, who we might become, and who we think we might become. This implies that users can actively shape how they would like to be identified within the boundaries of a social network site, and this virtual identity may or may not be related to their real self.

Nevertheless, as social technologies become broadly adopted across a wide range of demographics, users appear to find it increasingly difficult to discriminate between different audiences, resulting in context collapse – the discomfort of sharing the same information to overlapping social circles. That is to say, users may be inclined to share status updates with certain social groups, but not with others. Inasmuch as both groups may have ties between each other, context collapse becomes even more complex and problematic. New empirical evidence from a number of academics suggests that a new level of social complexity can lead to the conscious refusal of social technologies in general. It is easy to see how this might become a major source of concern for Facebook and other large social network sites: the repercussions could be severe, as more and more users are tempted to migrate to niche communication services to be able to send differentiated self-presentational messages to multiple strictly separated audiences. Each of these audiences independently monitors specific compartments of users’ identities, and responds to users’ specific personal and professional goals. By way of example, it is easy to see how Internet users would display their morally impeccable “public front” on Facebook and their professionalized side on LinkedIn, while sharing photographs through Instagram, chatting with friends through Snapchat, and posting potentially incriminating content to anonymized platforms, such as Reddit and 4Chan.

This verticalization of self-presentational practices will continue to unfold in the near future. While it is likely that Facebook will remain a dominant platform, providing the infrastructure of the social graph for other applications, it might lose its cultural relevance. At the same time, it is expected that every 3-5 years a new specialized photo and video sharing service will emerge to respond to the playful social needs of a younger generation – the future Instagrams and Snapchats – replacing the hitherto overhyped platforms, as their (mostly teenage) users come of age. To remain relevant and sustain user engagement, both established and nascent social network sites will need to innovate and repeatedly re-invent themselves to capitalize on the cyclical nature of this social ecosystem.

Within the next few years, we will see another critical development in online social interactions which is also related to the trends of ephemerality and verticalization: the systemic shift from profile-centric to content-centric social interactions on social network sites. Previously, users had to browse their friends’ profiles to discover updated content. With the introduction of Facebook’s newsfeed, Twitter’s homepage and other aggregated, algorithmic content-streams this logic has been fundamentally re-configured. As the social media researchers Nicole Ellison and Danah Boyd point out, users of social network sites now tend to predominantly consume, produce, and interact with dynamic streams of user-generated content provided by their personally curated list of connections and other system-level data, which also serves as a point of departure for other activities.

This trend is going to spread rapidly across other sites, gaining further significance with the introduction of original technologies that afford simplified, instantaneous sharing of content, such as wearable computing. Think of the vast amount of real-time updates you could directly interact with through wearable computing devices that are built for “always-on” augmented-reality applications. Though, embedded in this scenario is the assumption that products like Google Glass (or, potentially Google contact lenses?) will proffer innovative interaction potentials based on the additional data that is readily available on places, people and promotions around us. Imagine going into a bar and knowing exactly who you need to talk to (after mapping the social relations of all guests), being able to choose your personally tailored drinks deals (based on all your previous transactions and your search history) and, all of this, while broadcasting a first-person live-stream of the event to your friends at home. Given the rise of new pay-for-gaze business models, you would be probably also getting permanent, highly relevant and mood-adapted ads in the periphery of your vision.

The public acceptability of these kinds of privacy violations may ultimately depend on the value consumers are able to derive from this, even if the corporate reality mining process remains largely obfuscated. It is possible to envision how we could willingly provide large Internet corporations with insights into our intellectual pursuits, instant moods, and intimate desires, if our reward for this data exchange will be utmost convenience and a nearly perfect, contextually relevant gratification of our needs and wants through deep personalization. In fact, we have already quietly embarked on this journey, by accepting the data-collecting protocols of cookies to make our online lives more convenient.

As such, an argument can be put forth for the additional benefits of connection, better transactions and socially relevant interactions over the outdated concerns of privacy intrusions and data security. Thus stems the recognition, infamously expressed by one of the founding fathers of the Internet Vint Cerf, that privacy may in fact be an anomaly – essentially, a side effect of people not being sufficiently connected. Depending on your political orientation, you could even argue that the end of privacy is already here, as powerfully articulated by Edward Snowden in his 2013 Christmas message: “A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all, they’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.”

In summary, the exposition of current socio-technical trends and the underlying theoretical perspectives shed light on the likely future developments of computer-mediated communication; our constantly connected and fully transparent selves will be engaged in multiple differentiated performances of identity between distinct, cyclically emerging communication platforms. In the increasingly ephemeral live-streams of receiving and broadcasting information, our selves will be able to transcend the stale antinomy of online and offline lives. There will be no past and no future – all of our social interactions will happen in the perpetual present through the prism of augmented social technologiesYet the crucial question remains – in the near future, what will reality feel like when we decide to disconnect?

This post originally appeared on the London School of Economics Impact of Social Sciences blog and is reposted with the author’s permission.

About the Author

Vyacheslav Polonski (@slavacmis a DPhil student at the University of Oxford’s Oxford Internet Institute and Kellogg College. He is also a Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum. He received his MSc degree with distinction from the University of Oxford and his BSc degree with distinction from the London School of Economics and Political Science. In 2013, he was a TEDx speaker at IE University in Spain. Vyacheslav’s current research focuses on network science and the sociology of the Internet, exploring network effects and the collective dynamics within online communities.

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