Editor’s note: This is the second column in a three-part series.
In my previous article, I wrote about what social media looks like now and how churches might use it. This world is moving fast; in this article I want to begin to imagine where it might be going soon.
There is a bit of a fashion at the moment for blog writers to publish letters to their teenage selves. It is not a form I find either amusing or edifying in general, but one I noticed concluded after the usual platitudes with “I know you think they’re about to go bust, but buy some Apple stock. Just trust me on this one!”
I remember the days when it really did look like Apple was about to fall out of the computer market well enough to know that predicting the future is more of a fool’s game when it comes to technology than almost anywhere else.
That said, there is value sometimes in trying to look at what might be around the next corner and to begin to get ready for it.
Social media is in its infancy: Facebook began in 2004; Twitter in 2006. Its growth has been astonishing, but we have to assume it has not even begun to find its stable maturity yet.
These two platforms may disappear, eclipsed by others that offer a better user experience – or a better way of making money. (Facebook’s biggest single problem is that its income-generating activities, adverts and so on don’t work well on mobile devices – smartphones. Unless it sorts that out, it will disappear fairly soon.) Predictions have to be short-term because this world is changing so fast.
I think we can say that barring some sort of major collapse of civilization, social media will become increasingly important.
It will continue to be what it has already become – a way for geographically dispersed communities to maintain connection.
Each new generation of school leavers or university graduates will embrace it as the best way to remain in touch as they move apart.
In this, I suspect that one of the futures for social media will be an increased ability to separate channels: I will have my church group and my university friends group and my family group and my academic colleagues group and my former students group and some others. I will be able to tune in to each one selectively.
(Google+ and Facebook are already trying to do this in different ways; I suspect, though, the future is a new platform that gets it right.)
Second, localization services will become increasingly important. Again, this is just beginning – particularly through a platform called FourSquare – but with the increasing adoption of smartphones, and their increasing integration of social media platforms, I see it growing and growing.
Instead of looking at the world’s restaurant reviews, you will be able to see where your tribe has been eating in this town. You will get notifications when you happen to be geographically close to someone who is on that list. Some social media updates will screen for location (for example, traffic comments from other road users within 10 miles).
Third, social media is presently essentially text-based; Facebook, Twitter and other services – especially Pinterest – have the ability to share images or videos, but you interact with them through a keyboard.
Platforms like Second Life demonstrate the possibility of full graphical interaction. They have not really caught on, I think, because we do not have the right interfaces to engage adequately with them.
Actually, we do have the right interfaces, but they’re not yet connected up. Think of a games console interface – the Wii or the Kinect – which uses motion sensors to enable physical interaction. Those same motion sensors are already in your smartphone and could be connected to your computer. Now add in the microphone and camera that’s already there. You can act, listen, see and talk to other people in a virtual environment.
Sometime in the next few years, someone will get this right, and I suspect it will be the next huge story in social media.
Fourth, another technology that has not quite yet found its niche, but that will, is augmented reality.
The proof-of-concept games and apps have been around for a couple of years. You can use your iPhone camera and location device to give you a moving view of your surroundings with a layer of extra information on top.
Link that extra layer to your social media feeds, put it in a better interface than walking around holding a phone in front of your face, and you can imagine seeing the world with notes attached, left by your friends and tailored to your interests.
Now let’s imagine putting all this together: social media feeds integrated seamlessly into an augmented reality experience, which you interact with not through a keyboard but through speech and movement.
Invite your friends to see through your eyes and hear through your ears in real time. Find – well, anything – but say a local cinema, and discover reviews of the films from people you know or trust as you walk toward it. Talk to a friend’s avatar (computer generated graphical image) that is super-imposed onto your view of the park you are relaxing in.
Get on a treadmill, and race against friends in different countries, seeing them run ahead or fall behind. Play chess and watch their face as they puzzle over a move. Dance with a partner a hundred miles away.
And then start to think about what an online church might look like in a few years.
All the technology to do all this exists. It has not yet been packaged together in these ways (and I suspect that we need some faster mobile internet connections before it could really work, but that’s not a huge problem either; free citywide wifi has been trialed in Norfolk in eastern England, which is not exactly at the beating heart of the technological revolution.).
The challenge is to find the way to make it easy for people to engage and enjoy the experience without a steep learning curve or the purchase of expensive equipment. I have little doubt it will happen.
Is this a good thing? Media platforms are ways of interacting. We saw last summer that they can be used to plan riots and also to coordinate the cleanup. The more social media pervades our lives, the more ways of using it for good or ill we will discover.
We already give astonishing amounts of information about our lives to the companies that sell us products and services. Potential levels of surveillance will only increase.
Of course, we also need to think about more subtle questions: How does the nature of the platform shape and direct the communication? Does it tend to promote or to damage the best forms of human interacting, and similarly the worst?
If we ask for a Christian understanding of social media – its present, never mind its future – we need to think well theologically about what it is to communicate. That will be the theme of my third and last piece.