What to expect from social companies in 2016

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Social networks are in a time of upheaval. Established players are experimenting with new services to maintain their relevance, upstart messaging companies are doing their damnedest to knock incumbents off their thrones, and people have more options than ever before when it comes to connecting with other humans.

Below I’ve tried to think up some of the changes we’re most likely to see in 2016 as companies try to diversify their products, renew competition with their rivals, and make good on some of the things forecasted by changes made this last year. And, this being the holidays and all, I decided to do so in a handy-dandy listicle.

Facebook Messenger learns from Asian services

“For social in 2016 I think we will see a further entrenching of messaging and it will have a more important role in personal communications, especially in mature markets such as the US,” Gartner analyst Brian Blau told me. “As the top messaging platforms extend their functionality it will open the door to third-parties and businesses who will want to leverage messaging [as] one of their next platforms of choice when [it] comes to connecting with their customers.”

We’ve already seen this with a recent update that allows Messengers users to hail a ride through Uber without ever having to leave the communications app. The company was key to stress that this is just a test available to a limited number of users in the United States, and that Uber is just its first transportation partner, but it’s clear that Facebook plans to start expanding Messenger’s capabilities.

Snapchat works on its relevancy to the news cycle

I’ve already said Snapchat’s introduction to breaking news during the San Bernardino shooting on December 2 was refreshingly different from most coverage. The app’s ephemeral nature, combined with the fact that Snapchat’s coverage was based almost entirely on content shared by its users, made it a useful tool that provided a close look at what happened on the ground that day.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Snapchat followed this early success with other news efforts. Perhaps it could help news organizations find content on its network to share with their audiences via Discover. (Anything would have to stay within the Snapchat ecosystem to preserve its impermanence and the privacy of its poster.) Or it could just repeat its approach to covering San Bernardino in other places.

Pinterest stops dancing around its commerce ambitions

Many tech companies don’t worry about making money. They know that if they have reach enough people, and convince enough venture capitalists that they could make money as soon as they decide to flip a magical switch that could eventually rake in millions of dollars, they don’t really need to do anything else. But, eventually, investors start to expect companies to bring in some dough.

Pinterest could do that next year. The company has been flirting with commerce since it introduced “Buyable Pins” in the beginning of the year. It’s since added a dedicated shopping section to its mobile applications, introduced a search tool that makes it easier to discover goods within photos, and, most recently, updated the Buyable Pins so they can tell people when items shown in them drop in price.

All that’s left is for the company to ask for a cut of those revenues. Perhaps it will continue to indirectly profit for a while — advertising revenue ain’t bad — but eventually it wouldn’t be a surprise if it started to make money when people buy stuff they discovered on its platform. In fact, it would be the opposite: I would be more surprised if this didn’t happen than if the flip were switched next year.

Twitter introduces a competitor to Facebook’s Instant Articles

It’s weird that Facebook beat Twitter to content hosting. Sure, Facebook sends more traffic to publishers, but many people use Twitter as a content discovery service. It would’ve made sense for Twitter to introduce something that makes opening a link, especially in the company’s mobile applications, less painful than it is. (In-app browsers never seem to function particularly wonderfully.)

Given that, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Twitter at least attempted to offer a similar tool to publishers. It might not have as much success — Facebook’s efforts have succeeded in large part because it has more users, more control over the links they see, and more advertising options — but it could still give it a try. Otherwise it’ll be ceding one of its core strengths, content discovery, to its rival.

Celebrities and brands keep testing features before the public

It seems like one of the nicest things about being a celebrity, aside from the fame and the money and the prestige, is the ability to test new features before the unwashed masses ever hear of them. (And by “unwashed masses” I mean “we.”) That will probably remain true for two reasons: Giving a feature to celebrities naturally limits its reach, and access could keep celebrities engaged with a site.

Just look at how Facebook rolled out new features. Perhaps the most notable example is the service’s live-streaming tool. It debuted first among celebrities; then made its way to other public figures; and is finally being tested among a small number of Facebook users in the United States. This gave celebrities an interesting feature while also helping Facebook make adjustments to the tool.

There was also the the photo-editing features Twitter gave to celebrities before anyone else. And it’s not just celebrities: features often debut early among brands, too, so their ads can stand out from other content on the services. “With Instagram specifically, there are quite a few features they’ve offered brands that will likely make their way to users too,” said Jackdaw Research’s Jan Dawson. “Account switching, multiple-photo carousels, being able to link externally, and so on are all features users want and which might well show up in 2016.”

Facebook introduces video-streaming apps

I’ve said this already, but it’s worth repeating here: Facebook’s lack of standalone video apps is bizarre. The company has done everything it can to take over users’ phones by taking features from its main services and giving ’em their own apps. Messenger was part of Facebook. So was the ability to synchronize photos across devices, which is now exclusive to Moments. Facebook likes independent apps.

Combine that with how popular video has become on its service and it seems like only a matter of time before we start seeing these apps on our phones, tablets, and set-top boxes. Facebook will soon become a channel similar to YouTube or Netflix or Hulu. If it doesn’t, it’s only because the company decided to prop up its main application by keeping videos inside it instead of letting them branch out.

More concerns over data usage and battery life

Phones keep getting thinner. People also use them more each year. This means that battery life is the weakest aspect of any smartphone — and social networks are some of the worst culprits when it comes to using more power than expected.

This came to a head earlier this year when Circa co-founder Matt Galligan called attention to the insane amount of battery consumed by Facebook’s app. Facebook addressed the problem with an update less than two weeks later, but social networking apps like Facebook’s and Twitter’s continue to be some of the biggest drains on an iPhone’s battery life this side of using it to watch Netflix.

Consumers also have to be wary about social apps using all their mobile data. Facebook and Twitter both automatically play video advertisements in their apps by default, and this can wreak havoc on a customer’s data limits. As these apps continue to focus on videos and other rich media, the amount of battery power and mobile data they consume is likely to keep rising in the immediate future.

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