In the wake of Facebook’s F8 mega-event, with its parade of product, feature and platform announcements, I’m struck by the recent major inflection that has social networking penetrating more and more completely into our digital lives.
Indeed, social networking has moved from something that’s a destination activity, to something that is ever-present throughout every digital experience. And, no doubt, Facebook will continue this rapid progression.
My awareness that social networks have seriously and profoundly journeyed into our lives began with the startling statistics that I published in June: the searchable web is shrinking (by 9 percent in consumers’ monthly time spent over a recent one year period); while the social web is growing (with a matching 69 percent increase in time spent on Facebook specifically).
But the change has since intensified, as Facebook’s share of consumer attention has increased even further, and as Web sites the world over race to recruit Facebook “fans” and “likes.”
In addition, the trendline has also become increasingly clear and sharply etched in recent months with the LinkedIn (NYSE: LNKD) IPO; and with the Google+ Project, as even mighty Google (NSDQ: GOOG) vies for relevance as a social fabric that helps weave our world together.
Putting it all together, I’m seeing a restructuring of the stack: a new layering of how media is created, distributed, and experienced, different from the first generation of the Internet.
It’s the rise of what I’ve come to view as the “social operating system (Social OS).” And I think it changes everything for media and other companies online.
The New Way News Travels
Unlike the analog world, where content and distribution companies have largely fixed channels (licensed spectrum; contracted cable distribution; stable subscription bases; theater outlets; and other distribution power), digital content isn’t channelized. It’s itemized.
That means digital content has to earn an audience – item by item. The first generation of digital media publishers turned to search engine optimization to solve that, with an endless and constantly escalating set of editorial and technical tricks to bait search algorithms to rank them highly. This became de rigeur for every digital publisher; even as it spawned an arms race to find an audience.
But now that social is ubiquitous, the nature of distribution changes for media companies. And now, instead of having to reinvent the distribution wheel every day for every page, publishers can rely on a system far more powerful than the search engine to sort, select, and rank content. That system is part human, and part technology – but it is 100 percent social.
The Social OS sits at the boundary between content and the people who consume it. It provides a layer of functionality that lets Web companies focus on their unique content and the experiences that they offer – while earning distribution, not via channels, but via people. And, in the process, they earn, not a mechanistic relationship with an algorithm, but a real relationship with their audience.
None of this was possible until very recently.
The Internet was too immature: both in terms of technology, and audience. Indeed, it’s only since this decade started that we’ve had the social network and mobile technology in combination with literally billions of users online; this mix lets people connect to each other, and allows content to flow effortlessly from one consumer to the next.
And it’s this combination of technology (networks like Facebook and Twitter); content (with providers like Apple (NSDQ: AAPL), NetFlix, and YouTube, not to mention the hundreds of blogs and media companies); and, most significantly, real people online to spread all that goodness, which makes the Social OS work.
The New Common Medium For Transmission
That’s why each Social OS is defined, first and foremost, by who’s on it, and what the connections mean. But beyond that, each social operating system can make identity, personal information and interests, relationships, and other data and actions available to applications. And third, and most importantly, is the role of the Social OS as distributor. Because Social OS’s have transformed the primary navigational coordinates of the Web from document-to-document links to person-to-person, the Social OS becomes the medium for propagation.
As recently as a few years ago, large media companies saw some parts of this wave coming, and they thought the answer was for each of them to build their own proprietary social network. But relationships between people aren’t proprietary to media; rather, they are the conduits through which all media travels.
And that puts in perspective what Mark Zuckerberg recently said, about how media is the next big application for his Facebook Social OS:
“Some of the earliest examples we’ve seen are with games. It just leads to massive disruption. And I think, over the next 2, 3 years, we’re going to start to see that in more and more industries, and the next ones I would expect are going to be media-type industries.”
Or, as we say at my company, Wetpaint, we are becoming the Zynga of publishing, leveraging social operating systems like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to build a powerful media business on top of them.
Reinventing the Media Industry For a Social World
The rise of the social operating system has two implications for old (and even some new) media companies, who are mostly still trying to figure out what to do with all this. If the idea isn’t to be a social network, then how do they use Social OS’s to make their business more successful?
Social maven Jonah Peretti, co-founder of Huffington Post and CEO of BuzzFeed, points out that different social networks specialize in different content: Facebook users share “what you want your friends to think you like … content you can wear as a badge of honor,” while Twitter is a platform for topic curators and wholesalers in the information trade, and LinkedIn has a strictly professional domain.
For its part, YouTube has its own character: with most consumption anonymous, it’s largely an open public repository, and much of the networking that forwards YouTube videos from person to person happens via email, Facebook, and other networks.
And, as Google gets into the fray with its Google+ Project, presumably it is meant to specialize in closed groups, when full public exposure isn’t in order. If it works, it will likely find its best traction in topics like health & wellness, parenting, or certain hobbies.
For media companies, the key is knowing which Social OS’s to bet on; and then tuning content, packaging and distribution for them.
For celebrity entertainment and gossip at Wetpaint, we know Facebook is a natural match for mass consumer promotion. On the other hand, for industry analysis, like my blog posts, I’m not surprised that Facebook is relatively unimportant: for most of my readers, my posts wouldn’t fit in among family photos and Farmville accomplishments. Twitter and LinkedIn do far better for heady topics like the future of media.
High Stakes: The Future of an Industry
The last decade of audience fragmentation and content de-bundling on the Internet has ravaged media, particularly in a world characterized by fierce competition for the love of Google’s robots.
When Mark Zuckerberg recently spoke at a Facebook event in Seattle, he said:
“The last five years have been about connecting all these people. The next 5 years are going to be about all the crazy things you can do now that these people are connected, and I think it’s going to be cool.”
In a world powered by social operating systems, the prize is that, when we execute well, we get to be hooked into people’s lives. Media companies can earn constant places in consumers’ newsfeeds, along with a button asking them to consider sharing their experience every time they see us. I think that’s going to be cool.
Ben Elowitz (@elowitz) is co-founder and CEO of Wetpaint, a web publisher, and author of the Digital Quarters blog. Prior to Wetpaint, Elowitz co-founded Blue Nile, the online retailer of luxury goods. He is also an angel investor in various media and e-commerce companies.