Monday, April 25, 2011

The Validation Era

If there's a clear lesson that emerged out of the past decade, it's this: you can have too much of a good thing. Our excesses get corrected and sometimes in dramatic fashion. This too includes our current obsession with all things social. There are early signs that the social media boom is fraying at the edges and that we are entering a new age of intimacy.

Don't just take it from me. If you dig into media consumption patterns and, in particular, who the public considers an authority, you can see the signs. History is also your guide. Big shifts occur around every eight years.

Back during the Internet's first age, the Commercialization Era (1994 - 2002), only deep-pocketed corporations were able to establish themselves as authoritative sources. During this time big media companies and a handful of well-capitalized first movers, like Yahoo, became our trusted sources.


The dot-com crash and the glut bandwidth and storage, in part, created an environment that gave rise to social media and the Democratization Era. This age, which began in earnest in 2002, started with blogs, then branched out to include Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and, of course, Facebook. The end result is that anyone and everyone could command authority. Brands rushed in too as not to get left behind.


Now, however, we have a new challenge: people overload. This is leaving us gasping for quality.

Perhaps driven by peer pressure, the public - brands included - have been engaging in a friends arms race. Now there are signs that we know we overdid it. The result is that we are now entering a new age - The Validation Era.


Consider that according to a study conducted by GoodMobilePhones, people don't know 20 percent of their Facebook friends. Or that USA Today recently reported that social media users are 'grappling with overload.' Finally, the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, my employer's annual tracking study, notes that experts are now far more trusted than peers and friends. This is a dramatic shift from 2006 when the opposite rang true.

In the Validation Era, intimacy is in and publicness may be out - or at least on the decline. Quality is the new black. What this means that both individuals and businesses will need to increasingly work harder to earn their way in and remain in our stakeholders' circle of trust.

One sure sign of this trend is entrepreneurs, who naturally, are among the first to spot opportunities.

During the last few months, a host of intimate social networks have started to attract attention from the public, the media and investors. Many are tied to texting. These emerging players include Path, Beluga (now part of Facebook), Instagram, GroupMe and others.

While it's still early and these services are still nascent, the fact that there's even a market for such networks indicates change is on the horizon. Recall that many of us could not see the true impact of the Democratization Era until the mid-2000s. Startups saw it first. Should this trend hold, and I believe it will, there are at least three potential implications.

First, companies that take a liberal approach to social media will benefit the most. The reason is that as workers personally forge more intimate connections, it will benefit their employers as well.

Second, in the Validation Era, expertise rules. Businesses that activate their domain-level experts to share their knowledge across several spheres of media, will likely to see their ideas penetrate more private networks, either first-hand or through pass-alongs.

Finally, given that intimate social networks do not offer the same reach as wider platforms like Facebook, some of them will potentially explore gently partnering with major brands. GroupMe, for example, recently rolled out several branded partners, including MTV.

Ultimately what this all means is that the ante to stand out is only going up. Many of the conversations that influence buying decisions will become invisible to us, after years of being out in the open. Pure-play advertising-centric campaigns that overlook the power of validated messages will simply be ignored - either by audiences directly or, worse, by algorithms. And social media will need to become one percent of 100 people's job, rather than just 100% of a one.

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