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Today I gave the keynote on Social Media and the Future at Marcus Evans’ CIO Summit.

In question time after my keynote I was asked whether Facebook will still be the dominant social network in 5 years.

I think the degree of uncertainty on this front is too high to make a firm prediction. However given the current market landscape and trends over the last couple of years, the most likely outcome is that Facebook will still dominate.

In structured futures studies, one of the most powerful tools is trying to build plausible scenarios for how alternative outcomes to what is expected could come to pass.

In this case, we need to tell a credible story on how Facebook loses its predominant position in social networks.

So if you’d like to stretch your brain or have an interesting conversation with your friends, then build a scenario of how Facebook will fail.

I won’t go into a detailed analysis here, but will just suggest some of the elements that are may be part of that story:

* Facebook overreaches and pushes many of its users to look for an alternative. This would almost certainly be related to privacy, driven by over-commercialization by the newly public company.

* There is a viable alternative. If we are looking at a 5 year time frame, then it would almost certainly have to be Google+, which gets its act together and draws in far broader participation. It seems very unlikely that Twitter will seek to become a broad-based social network. Microsoft, which has a powerful platform to build engagement, has only just launched Socl, and Apple today has no real foundation for a social network. If we look much beyond 5 years then a yet-to-be launched social network could rise to become dominant. It is less than 6 years now since Facebook became open to the public.

* Not essential, but a possible element in the story is a dramatic shift to open social networks, potentially a distributed non-commercial social network. Open social network Diaspora* has not yet launched to the public however is now in a Y-Combinator program and is expected to launch in the next few months. Privacy or other breaches of trust could support a shift to open platforms.

* A massive shift of social networking activity to mobile platforms creates an opening for one or more of the major mobile players to leverage their position.

On the face of it, while there are plausible scenarios for Facebook to stumble and be supplanted containing some of these elements, they are not likely to play out within the next 5 years.

Facebook’s extraordinary global dominance in social networks today will take some serious shaking to erode. But much beyond 5 years there are many ways they could be supplanted.

How do you see this playing out?

For the most current insights and trends in the living networks, follow @rossdawson on Twitter!

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  • David

    You forgot the most important factor which governs success of social networks – social entropy. Facebook will be old hat and something new will come along. In “online” time, that will be within 5 years. Social networks, no matter how large, successful, dynamic, creative, all encompassing – are governed by “fashion” and have a lifecycle of 4 (the point of max attainment) and 11 years.

    • http://www.rossdawsonblog.com Ross Dawson

      It’s a plausible hypothesis David, though there are possible ways to avoid it, such as renewal. It is absolutely possible that Facebook is past its peak. But it will take a long time for any other than a handful of players, notably G+, to rival its size and presence.

      Many early adopters have been on several social networks already. Many more only slowly moved on to Facebook, and would take much longer to shift onto another platform.

  • http://www.boostzone.fr Dominique Turcq

    Agreeing with all what you say.
    One additional hypothesis: a Wikipedia like social network comes up. free of charge or a small fee, no advertising, managed as a Common, highly respectful of privacy, with some “intelligent” functionalities like some of Google+, etc.

    • http://www.rossdawsonblog.com Ross Dawson

      That’s essentially what I describe as ‘open social networks’ in the post, but there are many variations on the theme. However this kind of platform is likely to take a long time to get 1 billion users…

      • http://www.boostzone.fr Dominique Turcq

        Agreed. I believe that changes can be much faster than we were used to. Nokia, Palm pilot, Blackberry fell from grace in a few months as hardware platforms. Software platforms like FB could fall very fast too, even faster, because the switching cost is relatively easier, but it will not show as fast whenever it happens because one will not close one’s FB account as one threw away one’s old hardware. FB accounts will remain even if sleepy.

  • http://billbennett.co.nz billbennett

    Time and time again we’ve seen examples of what I think of as “imperial overreach”. Essentially this comes down to bad decision making by the people at the top of the pyramid, who aren’t listening properly to the signals at the bottom.

    Or the organisation may be simply too unwieldy to react to change.

    Either way, a huge empire can become irrelevant overnight.

    In tech we’ve seen this with IBM, Nokia and Blackberry. Yahoo would be a good case study. Closer to Facebook it’s what happened at Bebo and Myspace.

  • http://billbennett.co.nz billbennett

    Time and time again we’ve seen examples of what I think of as “imperial overreach”. Essentially this comes down to bad decision making by the people at the top of the pyramid, who aren’t listening properly to the signals at the bottom.

    Or the organisation may be simply too unwieldy to react to change.

    Either way, a huge empire can become irrelevant overnight.

    In tech we’ve seen this with IBM, Nokia and Blackberry. Yahoo would be a good case study. Closer to Facebook it’s what happened at Bebo and Myspace.

    • Anonymous

      Imperial Overreach is a good term… describes IBM and Yahoo. Nokia, Blackberry… simply overtaken by market disruption and new competitors. But some, I believe, are crippled by being acquired by those with the imperial overreach, and thus losing the creative, entrpreneurial vision required to keep making sense of these new markets. Myspace, Bebo, Last.fm… all platforms with real promise, having their innovation and leadership stopped dead in its tracks by acquisition.

      Facebook might now be a publicly-listed monolith, and it might overreach in certain areas and inflict the same fate described above on others (Instagram – though perhaps they have an interesting strategy there?), but at least it’s still lead by the guy who created it. The guy who had the dream. The guy who has the vision. The one guy who genuinely cares about it. We only have to look at the history of Apple to see how important that is to the really cutting-edge tech companies.

      • http://billbennett.co.nz billbennett

        Yes, that last point is essential. It depends also on how long he can keep control and whether he can keep the business simple enough so that one person CAN stay in control.

        That requires patience from the shareholders. I wonder if they’re up to it?

  • Anonymous

    I think the stand-out weakness of Facebook is, and always has been, that it lacks significant real-life context. i.e. that we function and operate, and mix in, to a degree or another, specialised groups… circles, as Google rightly calls them (yes Facebook has lists, but was very much a post-Google+ after-thought, and is not central to the experience).

    So Google has the potential to supplant Facebook… but that’s still expecting individuals to overlay their own real-world social context on top of Google+… and i don’t think people really get that yet.

    I’d like a great local social network. I’d like a great music social network. I’d like a great football (soccer) social network. If all the best of those things that i and others post then make it onto the uber, all-encompassing social network, then great, but i want more social immersion in what i’m really interested in… and not what the average person has to say about the (usually, distinctly less than) average TV show on any average, drab weekday…

    Gimme depth, gimme context, gimme immersion, gimme meaning… i think i can handle more than one social network in my life, but to be honest, i’m struggling to handle 2 ‘uber-social networks’ vying only for the big prize…

    • Aaron Wood

      Lists have been around pre-G+. True, they don’t advertise them as being “central to the experience,” but they have been there.

  • Reuben Conceicao

    Bots and fake accounts will be the downfall of Facebook. Currently, Facebook users are still regarded as relatively authentic, and people generally appreciate the convenience of Facebook Connect, but at some point, when confidence is eroded, you will see both businesses and individuals flock to a more trustworthy network. Apple has the potential to disrupt the space with its acquisition of AuthenTec, while Google has been primarily focused on facial recognition. It will not come down to privacy as the Internet generation willingly trade privacy for convenience. The big issue would be integrity of information. Who would want to advertise or engage with fake users? Nobody.

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Ross Dawson is globally recognized as a leading futurist, entrepreneur, keynote speaker, strategy advisor, and bestselling author. He is Founding Chairman of AHT Group, which consists of 3 companies: consulting, publishing, and ventures firm Advanced Human Technologies, future and strategy firm Future Exploration Network, and events company The Insight Exchange.

Ross is author most recently of Getting Results From Crowds, the prescient Living Networks, which anticipated the social network revolution, the Amazon.com bestseller Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships, and Implementing Enterprise 2.0. (click on the links for free chapter downloads). He is based in Sydney and San Francisco with his wife jewellery designer Victoria Buckley and two beautiful young daughters.

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