A futurist’s view of the “next big thing” in social media

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Venessa Miemis’ Twitter bio describes her as a “Metacog, futurist and thought architect tracking emerging media and technology trends & impacts.”  Now THAT got my attention.

Currently pursuing a masters degree in New Media Studies at the New School in NYC, she  has been passionately thinking and writing about the future for seven years. Venessa kindly agreed to an interview and I found her views on the connections between social media and education, politics, global community and our future to be one of the most thought-provoking posts I’ve featured here on {grow}. I think you’ll agree:

What is a futurist and how do I get a job like that?

A futurist’s role is to help people anticipate, plan for, and adapt to change. This means tracking emerging trends and seeing how they fit into the big picture and envisioning different scenarios for what might come next. You could call this “developing foresight.”   It’s a skill set that’s in pretty high demand these days.  Things are changing rapidly and everyone is looking for ways to stay ahead of the curve.

At the professional level, futurists are hired by organizations to help them understand the forces and trends shaping their industries, and anticipate the changing needs and desires of their customers in order to stay competitive.  At the individual level, each of us constantly thinks about our own goals and dreams and develops strategies that will help us accomplish them … so in some sense, we’re all futurists.  I do think we’re in a very transformative period in history, and we all need to hone our “futures thinking” skills in order to actively participate in the process of shaping our collective future, instead of just being a passive bystander.

You first connected with me after seeing my blog post on the future of social media.  Please answer this multiple choice question:  As a futurist, I thought Mark Schaefer’s social media forecast was a) entirely accurate;  b) uncanny and without error; or c) the subject of my college thesis.

Ha, well I think you hit on some great themes.  I wrote a post recently, 3 Key Trends Shaping the Web and Society, that looks at some megatrends that are driving today’s developments.  The one that’s influencing many of the social media trends on your list has to do with the increase in complexity around us.

Historically, as complexity increases, we develop better methods for making sense of it. A big challenge we’re facing right now is figuring out how to deal with information overload, and how to separate quality content from noise.  We’re trying to solve the problem through quantification.  As you mentioned, we’re going to continue to see information about ourselves, our habits, our sentiments, and our social connections become much more clearly measured and defined.

This could potentially be an amazing thing.  If we know more about each other, we may be able to begin collaborating on an enormous scale to solve some of the world’s serious problems. At the same time, as you also mentioned, if we’re not actively involved in demanding our civil liberties and digital rights, we may face some scary situations regarding privacy, power and control.  Thankfully, there are organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Peer to Peer Foundation that are dedicated to protecting our rights and values as we transition into a networked society.

One area on your list I disagree with is the notion that the digital divide will continue to grow and eventually become permanent. I think it will be just the opposite.  There’s a concept called “leapfrogging,” which describes how areas with poorly-developed technological or economic bases will skip over the intermediary steps and transition directly into adopting modern systems. For instance, you’re not going to see cables laid all over rural Africa so people can have internet access, you’re going to see an explosive growth of internet-connected mobile phone adoption.  As the technologies get better and cheaper, we’re going to see portable devices and interfaces become more seamlessly integrated into our lives, and it will be a game changer.

What are the social media trends you’re most concerned about?  Most optimistic about?

This passed through my twitterstream the other day: “Understanding how networks work is one of the most important literacies of the 21st century – Howard Rheingold.” I think that complements what I’ve been saying nicely.

While some people haven’t even entered the social media space yet, the rest of us are chomping at the bit and asking what’s next. We’re still very much in the Wild West of the real-time web. Just look at Twitter. There seems to be a new app released every day that’s trying to measure something – ROI, influence, impact, and so on. There are no established rules of conduct or best practices, and people are still arguing about whether it’s more important to have lots of followers or to be on lots of lists. Everyone’s trying to figure out how to capitalize on the space.

I understand that business is about monetization, but I think there’s something going on here that’s much bigger than people realize. It doesn’t fit into our traditional business models at all, because we’ve never had the opportunity before to leverage social networks at this scale.  That’s the next big social media trend: understanding how to leverage networks. We’re all here, we’re all connected – now what do we do?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the effects of social media in the workplace and the next generation of workers who grew up communicating with their thumbs.  What should we know about this group?

I’m actually rather concerned about this group.  I try to pay attention to what’s going on in many different fields to get a sense of the big picture, and the lack of  “new media literacy” in young people is alarming. You think it’s hard getting organizations to embrace social media — try looking at the educational system. It wasn’t designed for this. Forward-looking teachers see the necessity of bringing social technologies into the classroom to enhance the learning experience and prepare students for 21st century life, but it’s not happening fast enough.

Many young people are not being taught how to benefit from the power of the web as a tool for building a network and for learning. I mean, anyone who uses Twitter or belongs to an online community of some sort has seen that sharing information and learning from one another is not only fun and rewarding, it’s addictive.  Kids need to be shown how to navigate that world too.

I think the social web is enabling an informal learning process to take place that in some ways challenges the validity of our educational institutions.  It might be a bit extreme to tell schools to “‘innovate or die,” but they need to get with the program already. America is already falling behind in so many areas as geopolitical power shifts to other nations. We can’t afford to sit by and idly watch today’s youth go through a system that leaves them appallingly unprepared to compete in a global marketplace.

If the {grow} community wanted to learn more about the work of futurists and their study of social media, can you recommend a few resources?

The World Future Society , the World Futures Studies Federation and the Association for Professional Futurists (APF) websites are good places to start for an overview.  Ross Dawson and Gerd Leonhard focus a lot on the future of media on their blogs.  John Hagel and John Seely Brown both provide great insights into innovation and strategy from a business perspective. I’d also definitely recommend checking out the blogroll on KedgeForward, a blog by professional futurists Frank Spencer and Michael Morrell. It’s an excellent resource for future-focused exploring.

There are also several programs in the country to pursue higher education in Futures Studies. The University of Houston offers a Master of Technology in Futures Studies as well as a Certificate in Strategic Foresight.  Regent University offers a Master of Arts in Strategic Foresight, which is directed by Dr. Jay Gary.  And for those aching to leave the mainland, the Hawai’i Research Center for Futures Studies offer both an MA and a PhD in Alternative Futures through its Department of Political Science.   For a complete listing of Futures programs around the globe, visit this page on the Acceleration Studies Foundation website.

I’ve left the most important for last.  As a futurist, please tell me who you like for the Super Bowl.

My crystal ball has suddenly become very hazy…

Would love to have the {grow} community comment and pose other questions to Venessa!

Follow Venessa at @VenessaMiemis Her insightful blog can be found at: http://emergentbydesign.com/

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  • Thank you for an amazing post!

    As we continue to advance to next shift of civilization it is hugely important that people know the power of networks and we find more ways to connect with each other. Keeping two steps ahead of the curve makes it that much simpler to adapt to the changes that are ahead.

    From a business perspective, an alarming amount of companies have failed to get on board, and at some point I wonder if multi-national conglomerates will be left scratching their heads because they are left in the dust and the “little guy” has taken over their market place.

  • Mark

    @Tommy Excelllent point. I have been thinking about this myself. Now that Google has included Twitter and other social networking feeds in results, is this an opportunity for the clever “little guy” to dominate?

    Unfortunately, I just think Google upped the stakes for the conglomerates to further game the system. Perhaps I’m wrong. I usually am. That’s why I talk to people like Venessa. : )

  • What an outstanding post! Thanks to you and Venessa for sharing. Once it’s determined how to adequately monitize it, I’m very interested to see whether social media will be taken over by the “big guys” or whether the garage inventors will continue to reshape the Web as we know it.

    Again, thanks for the thoughts!

    –Sean

  • Mark

    @Sean It will probably be both : )

  • @Mark – Agreed, this seems to already by happening.

    @Sean – I don’t think social media can be “taken over” by anyone. (well, except the government, if we don’t have open standards and some sort of censorship happens).

    I just saw this tweet, that made sense to me:

    “One day, “social media” will be like “telephone”; appending it w/ “consultant”, “strategy” or “director” will be just as absurd”

    Calling it ‘social media’ is a buzzword, and in a sense, boxes in our thinking as to what it actually is. The web/social media is a communications platform, so I don’t think it can be taken over any more than the spoken word, written language, or visual communication (images, video) can be taken over. Some people and businesses will be effective communicators in this space, spreading their messages, connecting with their chosen audience, and building their brands, others will not.

    The thing that I feel like we have the most trouble with in this Western culture is the idea that it’s not a zero-sum game after all. Meaning, there doesn’t HAVE to be a loser in order for you to be a winner. There is an unlimited amount of pie to go around, – it’s just a matter of learning how the system works in order to get your share.

  • Great interview, Mark. I agree with Venessa: leapfrogging is already occurring in the developing world. One of the essentials of true “real time” is that it can occur regardless of your location. Sometimes it will occur when you’re at your desktop; sometimes while you’re on the move.

    Suggestion for your next interview: Fred Wilson and/or Brian Solis on why they believe social+mobile+realtime equals a “golden triangle” of opportunity.

  • Side note: Mark, I think you just coined a new term when you described the next group of workers as communicating with their thumbs: “The Thumb Generation!” It’s all yours. 🙂

  • Mark

    @Frank Gives new meaning to “I’m all thumbs” : )

  • Awesome post Mark! Thanks for Vanessa for sharing so many of her insights.
    Vanessa, I particularly liked you comment “Calling it ’social media’ is a buzzword, and in a sense, boxes in our thinking as to what it actually is. “. I believe this is one of the major roadblocks to its evolution we are currently seeing.

  • Jim LeBlanc

    As I read the future-themed posts on GROW I am feeling some amount of fear about the rate of change, an ability to keep up with it and a sinking feeling that I might not like this all of this.

    Venessa, you are immersed in this all the time. Do you get these feelings too?

  • @Steve – Thank you, and I couldn’t agree more. I’d love to see a clean slate for 2010 where we see it for what it is. I saw someone say ‘It’s not a decision making tool, it’s a performance indicator. I liked that. Here’s a nice mindmap of the type of ‘social media metrics’ a company should be thinking about (http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_JhZj2U4y3wQ/SQGu5DzfamI/AAAAAAAAAb4/-2ML9ki_0do/s1600-h/SMM.png).

    @Jim – No, I don’t think fear is the word I would use. I’d say more a combination of curiosity, with a healthy dose of concern.

    I’ve been working on this concept over on my site that I’m calling ‘metathinking’, which will essentially become a set of frameworks and methods to help us adapt to change.

    I’m pulling together info from a variety of fields, and hoping that if I can lay it out clearly, it will really provide some insights into what’s going on around us.

    The main outcome I’d like to achieve is to facilitate “process thinking.” Meaning, we’re stuck in this very linear way of thinking, where we believe things will continue to unfold in relatively the same way they always have. This is where your fear comes in, because things are not happening that way at all. BUT, I’m suggesting that if we adopt an entirely new way of looking at things, as seeing things in a more holistic, non-linear fashion, change will not be scary. And if we’re able to understand the fundamental drivers of these changes (like increasing complexity, and exponential technological growth), all these new developments won’t seem so sudden.

    I don’t know if that sounds abstract – it’s a big concept, to suggest to someone to forget a lot of what they thought they knew about the way the world works, and then recreate their worldview altogether. It’s a paradigm shift. But I think the sooner we can embrace it, the better off we’ll be.

    Oh, and the other key thing to remember is that there is no future. We’re living the future, every day. Isn’t that empowering? It should be, because the decisions we make today, individually and within organizations, are what is shaping the future.

    I think we’re going to have to be in this constant process of fail – adjust – adapt – fail – adapt – innovate – fail – adapt, etc.

    It’s not what we’re used to, but it’s what is. That’s where my concern comes in… if we don’t realize we’re the ones influencing what happens next, someone else will take the lead and make those decisions for us. And that could be scary.

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  • Hi Mark,

    Thanks so much for the interview with Venessa, and thanks also for the mention of my foresight/futures consulting firm KedgeForward. Hope that 2010 is a prosperous year for the Grow community!

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  • Wow, wh

  • oops, sorry about the glitch above, Mark, I just got really excited by this article 😀 – GREAT interview!!!
    Venessa, I’ve often wondered about the speed at which students are rapidly adopting new technologies or not and wonder if they will embrace it or entirely reject it and the implications that could have. There still doesn’t seem to be any formal coursework that specifically deals with the Internet and social networking.

  • hey michelle,

    actually, there are a bunch of programs springing up that do specifically deal with it and teach how to teach it.

    the one that immediately comes to mind is New Media Literacies (http://newmedialiteracies.org/). check it out, there’s a ton of great info, learning library, webinars, and they have a ning community too.

    – venessa

  • Mark

    Michelle + V — I hear the same complaint from my daughter who is a junior majoring inr journalism and business. She says everyone is preaching how important SM is but they are not teaching why or how. A real challenge to the traditional curriculum — no textbook is even possible, and the best practices are changing day by day. Will be interesting to see how this is addressed.

    Thanks for the link, Venessa.

  • It’s going to be addressed with Junto.

    http://emergentbydesign.com/2010/04/17/junto-is-born/

    Global interest is growing in cocreating this dialogue platform. Nothing like it exists. It would be a total gamechanger. We could model the behavior and SHOW why social media is important, not tell.

    I just presented this at a business conference yesterday (Social Business Edge) with Stowe Boyd here in NYC. A bunch of people approached me afterwards, loving the idea and offering resources.

    It’s happening!

    – v

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