Forecasting 2016

My favorite Boston FM radio DJ back in the day was Charles Laquidara, who would end his morning show, “The Big Mattress,” with the immortal words, “If the creek don’t rise, if the good Lord’s willing, if there ain’t no meltdown, we’ll do it all over again tomorrow right here on The Biiiiig Mattress!”

It always impressed me that even one day out, he couldn’t be sure, and he’d caveat his prediction of being there tomorrow. Smart man. Unlike my hero, I will attempt to forecast the year ahead (yes, this is proof that I am not so smart).

Another hero is Mark Twain, who might have said that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes, though researchersdoubt that claim. Absent a clean reference, I’m going with the author of Huckleberry Finn.

I think whoever said it was right, though. History doesn’t repeat, but given similar inputs — of which the human mind and its needs are one — we can expect general patterns to emerge. That helps explain the Hype Cycle first proposed by some genius at Gartner, which is very helpful in understanding how we buy and try to adopt emerging technologies.

I think it’s time to revisit what was once considered an unalloyed good — social media — and where it might be taking us in the years ahead, and I think that re-examination will begin next year.

Societal Impact

In the last few years, this revolutionary technology has taken a back seat to other shiny objects like analytics and big data. While it has been out of the spotlight, many of us have traveled far down the Hype Cycle curve to a point where we actually incorporate it into business to get things done.

The adoption has not been limited to business, and social media is now one of the threads in the fabric of global society.

Nowhere has social media’s impact been felt to a more perceptible degree than in the Middle East. During theArab Spring that began in December 2010, it gave political voice to millions of people who had been controlled by authoritarian regimes and enabled them to change their world, beginning with the ouster of longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

I remember many people cheering social media’s coming of age as an effective political tool that enabled ordinary citizens to speak truth to power. In the spring of 2011, multiple CEOs of fast-growing tech companies wanted to claim a place for their products and approaches to business that ran through the intersection of social media and mobile technologies.

The Downside of Social Media

As we look at social media today, it is far from the universal good that we heralded a mere five years ago. Social media is embedded in customer-facing business processes, politicians use it in governance and campaigning, and vendors have jumped on it to foster better contact with customers. In all these cases, we have begun to see the downside of having too easy a time telling the world what we think.

Especially in the political sphere, we find that our adversaries have the same access to the infrastructure that we do, and they use it to effectively communicate and recruit followers for nefarious causes.

We also know now the reality that it’s far easier to be snarky to strangers or even friends when we have a bubble of social media protecting us from viewing the body language of someone’s hurt feelings. Social media paradoxically is making us less sociable.

We can’t blame the tool, and we must remain conscious of how we use it. A backlash is forming in which people either don’t use some forms of social media, refer to it only occasionally, or actively use technologies that limit their exposure to the social stream.

Time for a Reassessment

As the Hype Cycle suggests, a certain amount of retrenchment should be expected in the history of any technology, but social structures like the First Amendment will ensure that our access to the technology is not impeded. However, the free market might have other plans.

For example, earlier this year, user growth at Twitter was reported to be slowing, causingconcerns about its ability to generate an increasing revenue stream.

There’s also the issue of user overload and the possibility that some enterprising vendor might develop one or more applications that do for social media what ad blockers and DVRs have done to other media. Already, encryption technologies are making it hard to track bad guys.

However, we need social media in ways that we don’t need TV, partly because it is bidirectional and asynchronous and because in this hectic world it greatly expands our innermost circles.

All this is a circuitous way of saying that I think next year will be, among many other things, a time for re-evaluating social media as it passes from precocious youth to responsible adulthood. We’ll find out then if I am right and I’ll write about it here, if the creek don’t rise… .

Denis Pombriant

Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry researcher, writer and speaker. His new book, Solve for the Customer, is now available on Amazon. He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Google+.

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