The future of social media in an internet of things

We currently associate social media with web-based applications such as Facebook or Twitter that enable people to connect and share content with each other. However, a new kind of social media is now emerging from the so-called ‘internet of things’. As digital sensors and wireless processors get smaller and cheaper, the internet is poised to evolve from a network of users into a network of users and ‘things’ (appliances, mobile devices, vehicles, buildings).

With more things connected, we will be able to visualise information (increasingly in realtime) from more systems than ever before – the workplace, the home, government, public infrastructure, events, even the human body itself. In many areas of life and work, the gathering of content will become an entirely automated process. As the Smarter Planet team at IBM argues in this recent , the internet of things will foster a ‘global data field’, which has the potential to dramatically improve decision-making for individuals and organisations alike.

All of which has some interesting implications for what we think of as ‘social media’. In an automated and object-oriented network, users will begin to leave much richer data trails in the wake of their daily activities; for example, information relating to their employment, travel arrangements, or shopping decisions. Leaving the privacy issues aside for a moment, the internet of things points towards the following changes in the social media landscape.

The first is a more ‘ambient’ form of social media – background information about actions, decisions, movements and discoveries that would have remained invisible in the past. In other words, the data trail left by users will be logged, collated, shared and tagged in realtime, either with friends or colleagues. The second is a more ‘augmented’ form of social media – for example, the superimposition of object- and user-generated information onto visual representations of the world, in a fashion that is geographically relevant and/or time-sensitive to individuals and organisations. Augmented reality, as it is otherwise known, will rely to a considerable degree on information gleaned from sensors and user-generated data trails.

For companies, this degree of realtime monitoring will yield huge benefits for business intelligence, supply chain management and productivity. For friends and family, it will impact communications and the meaning of relationships. For society as a whole, it has the capacity to advance our understanding of both natural and human systems. It will be possible to connect otherwise disparate bodies of information in realtime, identifying otherwise hidden patterns. One possible result is that we find more efficient and sustainable ways of living and working.

Of course, the danger in this transition is that our lives will be subjected to unprecedented scrutiny from billions of sensors. The resulting data trail could well be exploited or stolen. We will see a widening gulf between the capability of these surveillance technologies and what is deemed acceptable or legal from a privacy perspective. For example, as this recent NY Times article describes, privacy advocates are already vigorously campaigning against the deployment of video cameras, motion detectors and facial recognition sensors in retail stores – technologies that are now being used to analyse and manipulate consumer behaviour.

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