So you want to know what will happen next year? The only thing I can predict with certitude is that professional pontificators like yours truly will kick back and take it easy with a combination of year-in-review articles and prognostications for 2013. (And that we’ll nick those predictions from our pals’ tweets and status updates. Thanks, Paul!)
Formulaic as it may have become, speculating about what’s to come isn’t a media trope; it’s a feature of storytelling that goes back to the Greek oracles—even to the first examples of Chinese writing. We long to craft narratives that light the future as much as they limn the past.
Here’s my attempt to raise a lantern and clear a bit of the fog ahead.
Google will screw up YouTube
What’s all the fuss about Google+? Google already has a social network, the only real competition to Facebook: It’s called YouTube.
The problem is that YouTube’s model of identity and community is an anarchic one where people use pseudonymous usernames—even Justin Bieber still goes by kidrauhl there. And the comments? Anything goes, which means there’s a lot of nasty vitriol (see “Gamer Girl Manifesto”), but people also feel free to say controversial things.
Google is also touchy about seemingly absurd things—like whether you can flip off the Internet in your profile. Tech blogger and venture capitalist MG Siegler learned that the answer was “no” when Google silently deleted his profile pic—not just on Google+, but on Google Profiles, Gmail, and a host of related services.
Imagine what will happen when Google starts applying these kinds of randomly but rigidly enforced rules to YouTube. Oh, and they will—the algorithm-obsessed engineers of Mountain View are known for nothing if not a foolish consistency.
Here’s just one example: Gay soldier AreYouSuprised’s coming-out story would never have happened if Google+’s schoolmarms were running YouTube.
Facebook will fix Facebook
I have more faith in Mark Zuckerberg, who remains singularly obsessed with building his product—even as the world’s largest social network preps for an IPO. Facebook remains far too complicated. I’m not even thinking about Facebook’s privacy settings, which are a lost cause for the majority of users who just can’t be bothered to twiddle with fine-grained restrictions on who sees what.
I’m thinking of the overall Facebook experience: There’s too much going on. App notifications! Wall posts! Game requests! Tickers! Chat! Yes, the options serve to keep people coming back. But at some point, it all becomes exhausting.
I know that I’ve personally become captivated by the simplicity of Path, which offers the right combination of expressiveness—photos, location, friends, status—and simplicity, on a mobile-only experience. I also find I like Facebook’s mobile app better than the Web experience, though compared to Path, it’s a confusing morass of endless screens and options.
So look for a dramatic reboot of Facebook in 2012. Timeline is just the beginning: The whole site, from the News Feed to notifications to messages, is ready for a rethink. And Zuckerberg & Co., to their credit, have shown they’re not afraid to rebuild what’s working to make it better.
Twitter will skitter along
CEO Dick Costolo likes to tell his employees that “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” But it’s far from clear, inside or out, if Costolo or Jack Dorsey, the company’s executive chairman and cofounder, is pointing the way.
Even with a few weaves and bobs though, it’s hard to see Twitter taking a dive. The strength of its idea and the simplicity of its form will see it through some missteps and missed opportunities. Some call Twitter an echo chamber, but brands love how their marketing messages rebound from tweet to tweet. And Twitter has found an effective business model: taking money from rich people.
That cash should last more than enough time for Twitter to find a solid perch.
Photo courtesy Matt Lynley