I was going to call this "the Social Network", until I realized there's a movie out now by that name. This post talks about potential descendants of Twitter and the like.
I just had a conversation with a friend, where we talked about the difficulties of actually finding the right things in this world full of stuff. As a quote:
"They understand they want a cube that's two inches to an edge and blue, but they don't know what that cube is called, or what its manufacturer would market it as. They know they want a material that is liquid at room temperature and has a viscosity somewhere between water and grapefruit juice, but they don't know who would make such a thing, or what market its currently being sold for."
This is something that does crop up fairly regularly in both large and small cases. For example, I met a man who needed a "poster-quality technical illustration", but didn't know the terminology, so he was searching for "data visualization" and other keywords that kept leading him down dead ends.
My response to my friend was "I think a descendant of Twitter will solve this problem."
His response was "I don't think this is one of those problems that social networking or its derivatives is going to help with. We're not searching based on who knows who, or even who knows what, or even for people at all (expect to say we're searching for the person who makes the thing we want.) We're searching for an object, process, or intellectual property that meets certain parameters."
My response was "I'll write a blog post!" and his response was "facepalm". And now you are up to speed.
The future of everything is the social network.
First thing first, the term "social network" is being radically misused. Facebook is not a social network, it's a web site that enables social networks. Twitter is not a social network, it's a web site and API that enables social networks. So, when I say "social network", I don't mean "Twitter". I mean the underlying mass of connections between the participants on various social networking sites, and all the context those connections contain.
Right now, social networks are seen as just that - social. But that's just how the current generation is marketed. In reality, a social network is about connections that you know how much to trust. The people you follow on Twitter, you follow because you value their input at some level. Maybe you follow Gibson because you trust his judgment, maybe because he throws out interesting links, maybe because you hate him but you want to track what he says. The point is, you understand how much he can be trusted on what subject.
(As it turns out, Gibson is mostly a retweeter, so most people that follow him are using him as a source for filtered links. But we trust his filter to do as we expect it to, letting through certain kinds of links and not others.)
Things go the other direction, too. If you look at the Freakonomics blog or Warren Ellis, you'll find that these people use their readers as a vast resource. They constantly ask for information - what's a good band, give us quotes from 1930, send me your pictures, what do you think of this analysis... people with a lot of readers tend to be very interactive with those readers. If Freakonomics people had posted "I need this kind of data visualization..." they wouldn't have needed to search for the right match for days: some of their readers would have instantly known what they were asking for, and they would be hooked up inside hours.
It's not that these people trust their readers. I'm sure a lot of their readers send in crap, and I'm sure they get a lot of spam. But they have a lot of really great readers specifically because their readership trusts them (in specific ways) and therefore wants to impress them/participate.
That's the state of the world today.
It's not really that much of a jump to imagine the next generation of software will help with this sort of thing, will be more useful for the kinds of meaningful interactions that really make social networking worthwhile. Of course, you'll still be able to hear that Anne just ate a sandwich, if you want. Those interactions have value, too.
The other half of this is that I don't think it's much of a jump to imagine companies (or people within companies) using social networking software to figure out exactly what they're looking for and a good source of it.
Social networks have been used for thousands or even tens of thousands of years for precisely this purpose. The purchasing manager wants to buy Ye Old Paste, so he asks his friends if they know a good paste maker, maybe someone who'll hook them up at a discount. It continues today - my company regularly get requests from people who want to know more about what specific panels they should buy, even though we don't sell or install them. It's because they know us, and we know these guys...
It's the exact same as Facebook or Twitter, except without the technical assistance of a piece of software.
Sure, if your social network fails (or is hopelessly inadequate) you fall back on reading advertising or Google-combing. But those are techniques I would like to render obsolete. If we can radically expand social networking software to the point where it allows people to talk to each other in a businesslike way without feeling the stigma of "found it on the internet", we may very well end up making that desperate and blind search for an answer a thing of the past.
Actually, I've already hired people via Twitter, so I can't imagine it'll be long coming.