A decade ago, with the launch of Friendster, Myspace and social networking in its earliest forms, few Americans could predict the trends soon to follow. New opportunities have overtaken the old and each day new technological advancements are introduced and new hot websites make their ways to the top of the Google rankings. The overall pattern has perpetuated since the mainstream breakthrough of the internet: sites experience brief periods of popularity that soon fade away as the next big thing breaks into the spotlight. Through these Internet cycles, however, social networking has maintained a top spot in web traffic. Now, as mobile computing grows rapidly in use and smartphone sales are predicted to reach one billion units in 2013, the future of social networking as we know it looks very different from it did in 2003.
The modern smartphone made its debut in the early 2000s with the Nokia N8 and the first BlackBerry model. Although it took almost a decade for smartphones to truly become more than a small percentage of the market, they now dominate the mobile phone world. Apple’s iPhone popularized the concept of apps in 2007, an adaptation that has been adopted by virtually every other mobile operating system designer since. While Apple’s iOS continues to lead the app market, Android’s selection is largely comparable in breadth and performance. With schools, businesses and banks producing their own apps to facilitate ease of use, it is hard to argue that apps are a temporary evolution in mobile computing.
Today, virtually every social networking site has a mobile app counterpart and many of these apps are starting to deviate from the features and traits of their desktop parents. The Facebook app, for example, integrates messaging, posting and sharing in a way that the desktop site has not yet managed. These changes from mobile site to mobile platform are most evident in Google’s G+ app, a completely separate interface and networking center than the Google Plus website. As smartphones overtake more traditional cell phones and apps overreach the sites on which they are based, the world of networking and virtual connections is changing rapidly.
While apps play a crucial role in how modern Americans interact with one another, they are not the only features changing the virtual communication game. While text messaging, also known as SMS messaging, has been popular far longer than smartphone or mobile apps, trends now show that other messaging services, such as iMessage and apps like Snapchat are growing in prominence. For social media titans like Facebook, the surge in messaging apps and interfaces poses a problem. After all, what good is a social networking website if people are choosing other mediums through which to be social?
These changes do not necessarily post a large threat to social networking apps, however. As developers understand, messaging apps and other “mobile-first” modes of communication lack the depth and breadth of applications modeled on websites and other primary methods of interaction. While Facebook and Google Plus may be struggling to make a product that can compete with iMessage or MessageNow, this does not mean they do not serve strong functions. In fact, as messaging apps seek to take on qualities shared by social networks and social network apps look for a way to mimic the integrated messaging platforms currently growing in popularity, it seems more likely that the two will merge into a new way of social mobile interactions.
Over the last several years in particular, we have seen a surge of desktop sites focusing research and development costs on mobile apps and new development companies focusing on mobile products exclusively, it seems unlikely that we can avoid a new variation on virtual interaction and social networking. It may be a waiting game to see just how these changes take place but the future is almost inevitable. Based on the trends, what does seem certain is that the days of relying on desktop computing may soon be over in favor of a new form of mobile communication.