Ironic as it is coming from a heathen such as myself, social exhibits some of the same growth patterns as Christianity. When it was "discovered," it gave rise to a variety of denominational beliefs, each with their own interpretations of a shared holy text. Similarly, everyone has been learning social as they went along, sprouting out in all types of directions, but still sharing at least some set of common core beliefs. Religious denominations arise from the questions asked by its believers, and the way answers are interpreted. I came up through the consulting side of social, where before you ask the question of what you should say on Facebook or Twitter, you ask what your purpose is on social in the first place. Many answers (but even more questions) fall out of addressing the latter. But by answering that question, you start down a road that diverges from where most of the industry has gone.
The majority of "experts" in the space have adopted the belief of social as an avenue for brands to have an ongoing two-way dialogue with its customers, in an effort to foster advocacy. But take a step back, and see how this practice has manifested over the last few years. Many companies have decidedly interpreted social as creating content then circulating it through their social channels. How is that social?
Does shoving branded content through your Facebook page make it social content? In actuality, you're doing nothing different from the same advertising we're used to. You're simply changing the platform on which it appears. Branded content is not, in and of itself, social. And even when it's shared, most of it takes place in "dark social."
This is, however, how most of the industry has come to understand social; as varying degrees of content publishing. This belief, though a piece of the puzzle, is shortsighted and stunting, because it doesn't credit what social is capable of, and frankly, what it's already doing.
I believe we're reaching a tipping point of understanding what's possible with social. It's maturing and figuring out what it wants to be when it grows up. And I sincerely hope that future is a whole lot more useful than it has been so far. Social as a utility is the other side of the story here, and I adamantly believe that is the higher, more honorable calling for social than share buttons and EdgeRank algorithms.
I believe that if you dig into this alternate future, you'll find that social is capable of truly amazing feats. Smartphones, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, The Internet of Things and other technological advancements have opened the door to countless opportunities for the world around us to be enriched in ways we never thought possible. But what social can do, is apply a filter, through which the information and experiences we glean from our digitally connected environments, is tailored to us as individuals.
Imagine food shopping at your local Wal-Mart (not that we have any in NYC). Your phone, which is linked to your internet-connected fridge, knows precisely how much milk you have left, what ingredients you need for that dish you want to make, and kitchen staples you're running low on. As you go through the aisle, your phone alerts the shelves on which your favorite products are stacked, automatically highlighting them for easy retrieval. As you check-out, you decide to rent a movie, and approach the Redbox, which senses your presence. Based on what it knows about your viewing history, as well as your friends' favorite films, it recommends a series of movies to rent, and you go along your way.
A custom experience, unlike anyone else's; because no one else is like you. That journey is made possible by the seamless integration of today's digital technologies, and your social data. Is it a big, sexy crowdsourcing campaign? Or a beautiful 100-day long branded content push? No. But that's also just advertising. This instead scratches at something so much larger, and so much more useful. A digitally connected world that changes and morphs to cater to you. It's not unlike the scene from Minority Report where Tom Cruise's character is greeted by the Gap hologram, which remembers his previous purchases. Well, Mr. Yakamoto's anyway. That's the world I want to push this discipline toward.
You can already see the beginnings of this new world. An enjoyable pastime of mine is smoking hookah. I went to a nearby lounge and checked-in on Foursquare. While waiting for an attendant to take my order, I read the tips. One of them recommended asking for milk in the hookah. I had never heard of that before and inquired. Apparently it makes it smoother and creates thicker smoke. When I got the milk-filled arghile, I was amazed that I had never known about it before. And just like that, a new experience had been unlocked to me thanks to the technology in my pocket, and the social data being fed through to it. It rose to the occasion when and where I needed it to.
Alone, the potential of the technology we build is limited. But when you marry these smart devices with the massive amounts of social data available about each of us, the sum becomes greater than the parts, and something so much more interesting, even magical, takes place. It can't just be what we see today. If it is, then take me out now. Because I have dreams of something bigger...