The Future of the Social Web: In Five Eras

[By Jeremiah Owyang]

Expect the Groundswell to continue, in which people connect to each other --rather than institutions. Consumer adoption of social networks is increasing a rapid pace, brands are adopting even during a recession, so expect the space to rapidly innovate to match this trend. Clients can acces this report; but to summarize what we found, in the executive summary we state:

Today’s social experience is disjointed because consumers have separate identities in each social network they visit. A simple set of technologies that enable a portable identity will soon empower consumers to bring their identities with them — transforming marketing, eCommerce, CRM, and advertising. IDs are just the beginning of this transformation, in which the Web will evolve step by step from separate social sites into a shared social experience. Consumers will rely on their peers as they make online decisions, whether or not brands choose to participate. Socially connected consumers will strengthen communities and shift power away from brands and CRM systems; eventually this will result in empowered communities defining the next generation of products.

We found that technologies trigger changes in consumer adoption, and brands will follow, resulting in five distinct waves, they consist of:

The Five Eras of the Social Web:

1) Era of Social Relationships: People connect to others and share

2) Era of Social Functionality: Social networks become like operating system

3) Era of Social Colonization: Every experience can now be social

4) Era of Social Context: Personalized and accurate content

5) Era of Social Commerce: Communities define future products and services

The Five Eras Of The Social Web

Timing of the Five Overlapping Eras:
It's important to note that these eras aren't sequential, but instead are overlapping. We've already entered and have seen maturity for the era of social relationships, have entered social functionality but haven't seen true utility, and are starting to see threads of social colonization with early technologies like Facebook connect. Soon these federated identities will empower people to enter the era of social context with personalized and social content. The following diagram demonstrates how we should expect to see the eras play out in the future --with social commerce the furthest out.

Timing Of The Five Overlapping Eras

Interviews with 24 of the top Social Companies:
Research isn't done in a vacuum, that's why we conducted qualitative research to find out what we should come to expect. We came to these conclusions based on interviews with executives, product managers, and strategists at the following 24 companies: Appirio, Cisco Eos, Dell, Facebook, Federated Media Publishing, Flock, Gigya, Google (Open Social/stack team), Graphing Social Patterns (Dave McClure), IBM (SOA Team), Intel (social media marketing team), KickApps, LinkedIn, Meebo, Microsoft (Live team), MySpace, OpenID Foundation (Chris Messina), Plaxo, Pluck, Razorfish, ReadWriteWeb,, Six Apart, and Twitter.

How Brands Should Prepare
What's interesting isn't this vision for the future, but what it holds in store for brands, as a result, companies should prepare by:

  • Don't Hesitate: These changes are coming at a rapid pace, and we're in three of these ears by end of year. Brands should prepare by factoring in these eras into their near term plans. Don't be left behind and let competitors connect with your community before you do.
  • Prepare For Transparency: People will be able to surf the web with their friends, as a result you must have a plan. Prepare for every webpage and product to be reviewed by your customers and seen by prospects --even if you choose not to participate.
  • Connect with Advocates: Focus on customer advocates, they will sway over prospects, and could defend against detractors. Their opinion is trusted more than yours, and when the power shifts to community, and they start to define what products should be, they become more important than ever.
  • Evolve your Enterprise Systems: Your enterprise systems will need to connect to the social web. Social networks and their partners are quickly becoming a source of customer information and lead generation beyond your CRM system. CMS systems will need to inherit social features --pressure your vendors to offer this, or find a community platform.
  • Shatter your Corporate Website: In the most radical future, content will come to consumers --rather than them chasing it-- prepare to fragment your corporate website and let it distribute to the social web. Let the most important information go and spread to communities where they exist; fish where the fish are.

This project took a team effort, and I'd like to thank Josh Bernoff as a guiding force in my career, Emily Bowen who kept the project going, Cynthia Pflaum for the quantitative data, Megan Chromik in our editing team for the polish, and Jon Symons in our PR team for the media outreach.

This was cross posted on the Web Strategy Blog.


re: The Future of the Social Web: In Five Eras

Great article.I used ebay for my analogy. Remember how worried you were putting your visa number in that box on ebay for the first time? The same is true for social media. It will take the majority some time to become comfortable with social media but I don't expect it to ever go away. Apply it in your business practises or be left behind.

re: The Future of the Social Web: In Five Eras

It will be very exciting to watch the eras play out. Chris Brogan's blog post today talked about confidence and John Cass's post today covered the "death of blogs" and that they aren't really dead, there are just more options for joining the conversation. I think these are both very relevant thoughts for this blog post.1) The reason that technologies of all kinds continue to evolve with customization and personal preference options is because different people have different ways they like to receive information and share experiences. And, not everyone in the world wants to Participate in market conversations with their comments, but are more inclined to be Listener--to gather advice, opinions and recommendations from market conversation Influencers and Participants. The more connected the online social world becomes, the more options there will be to suit each type of person whether they want to actively participate or just listen and it will give voice to more people who have expertise they'd like to share.2) For many people, as in Chris Fyvie's comment here, it is a scary and risky thing to trust some of the new social technologies. People want to know that there personal information is safe. The concept that these "communities" and "groups" are becoming more connected drags with it the idea that somewhere along the way your private information will end up where you don't want it. For me, I fear that I'll end up with more and more companies making noise at me--advertising in my social sites and smamming (social media spam) the groups to the point of irritation.But with all great things, there will be early adopters that test things out so improvements can be made for future users, some disastrous mistakes will happen that will progress safety measures, but mostly, people will become more and more comfortable as these new changes go mainstream!

re: The Future of the Social Web: In Five Eras

Thank you bothChristine, what's interesting is that people already trust social networks. Who do you think has more information about Generation Y: Facebook of the US Government? What's interesting is that some people share so much about themselves willingly.

re: The Future of the Social Web: In Five Eras

I definitely get the convenience benefits of a "single sign-on" across sites (OpenID or whatever), as long as it doesn't compromise security of credit card data or other personal information. As early adopters of ecommerce and other new services, my husband and I have been victimized by ID theft more than 5 times, so we're a lot more cautious about where/why/how we entrust personal data.I think people are complex and nuanced beings, so these services will need to make it easy for consumers to share relevant information or preferences, given the specific situation, timing, and who's in their online community or the social circle(s) they care about. Even in real life situations the friends to whom I'd recommend a Manduka yoga mat are not the same people as the ones to whom I'd recommend "Groundswell" or my favorite hiking boots -- or wines from France. I'm happy to make such recommendations in the moment, knowing what I have in common with a particular person, but am unlikely to take the time to do so on a pro-active basis...What this may suggest is that my behavior reveals different facets of me to different people (or even the same person, under differing circumstances). Therefore, no one-size-fits-all portability identity is likely to work very well -- at least not for multi-faceted, multi-dimensional people with multiple social networks. From a development standpoint, this implies huge complexity in what gets stored or associated with a person's portable identity, and all the many use cases.Given the economy (and what I'm seeing with clients now), I think this vision will take much longer to be realized -- especially to the extent it requires significant capital investments in infrastructure, customer/community intelligence repositories, business rules and analytics, etc. The change could take decades, rather than a few years.I think there are some intriguing concepts here, but the domain is fraught with potential issues, especially if ill-intentioned vendors run amuk.

re: The Future of the Social Web: In Five Eras

Thinking about it, makes all sense, just look at the changes that occur in the world because of Orkut, Facebook, Twitter and others.The world as we see today, not will be the same tomorrow.

re: The Future of the Social Web: In Five Eras

Every 2 to 3 years, we're encoutering yet another 'swell' of newtech/newapps that distract us all from doing some 'real' work. How many times will we see posts stating "today's world will not be the same tomorrow"??

re: The Future of the Social Web: In Five Eras

Jeremiah,There's so much noise out there on the Social subject. You did a great job boiling it down to what is most important and mapping it our in the near term. I agree that portal identity is going to be a huge simplification of the social process for consumers and companies and empower both to deliver what each needs. A lot also derives from, depends upon, and is driven by human/physiological factors of connection, control, and communicating (UGC).

re: The Future of the Social Web: In Five Eras

Jeremiah,In response to the question you raised from my comment..."Christine, what's interesting is that people already trust social networks. Who do you think has more information about Generation Y: Facebook of the US Government? What's interesting is that some people share so much about themselves willingly."Absolutely, Facebook has more info about Gen Y than the US Government. Some people are blindly willing to post personal pictures or opinions or preferences. I think the fear for many, even those that post crazy stuff about themselves, is that posting anything or certain things will lead to access to their financial data, health data, family data, etc.As a B2B marketing professional, I see clients who are afraid of social media because they don't want proprietary data to "get out there" or they're afraid of their employees having a negative effect on their brand image through "flubs."I "flubbed" yesterday in making not-very-polite tweets about 2 products I'd demoed. I got called out on them and decided to address it head on. I would rather reap the benefits of using social media to proliferate my ideas and my brand's convictions about conversation marketing with the risk that I might flub because I think people accept that we're all human and are accepting of apologies. (if anyone cares, my flub and apology to both companies is detailed in my blog post today at

re: The Future of the Social Web: In Five Eras

Jeremiah,I loved your post so much that it inspired me to write one and mention this article. I have never read such a unique slant on the future of social media, so thanks for the research, and easy read. We are certainly in a social economy today, and there is too much evidence this is not a passing fad, but just fitting into our new "era" waiting for the next one.My article I wrote speaks of Social Media ROI - "Risk Of Inaction?" It is too much of a risk to ignore social media! What is The Definition of Social Media ROI? - “Risk of Inaction"

re: The Future of the Social Web: In Five Eras

This was a great post and inspired me promote your article.My article suggests we will see changes from Marketers that will need to continue to engage users but in a different way. You can read it at: againMatt

re: The Future of the Social Web: In Five Eras

Like the progression you've outlined. It will play out differently for retail vs. financial services, but I believe that Open ID can co-exist with financial sites. Could shape how prospects see the product offerings. Or for customers it might hand off the information to the secure side once the person has authenticated, helping both the user and firm provide a more relevant experience. Also see a possible partnership with retail and credit card sites. Bringing the rich data from both these verticals together could be powerful.Evoked the thought of Paleozoic Era, Mesozoic Era, Cenozoic Era. Perhaps you should give them formal scientific designations (Jeremiah Era, Owyang Era, etc.)Steve

re: The Future of the Social Web: In Five Eras

FINALLY. A meaningful, well researched, well thought piece on the opportunities for social network monetization. Well done !!!Steve GoldnerOpt-In, Founder and Principal