It used to be the preserve of students but now social media websites and services are giving a voice to the oppressed and are the mainstay of almost every businesses marketing campaign. But where will they go next? Henry Tucker MBCS (@tuckski) updates his status to find out.

I remember when I first heard about Twitter. It was one of the stories we had planned in one of our OddIT podcasts, that was how seriously we didn’t take it. After hearing the description of what it offered I did wonder what the point of it was. Why would anyone want 140 character updates from people they didn’t know from all over the world? How wrong I was.

As for Facebook and LinkedIn, the stories are very similar. Being a tech journalist I signed up for LinkedIn early on, but hardly used it. Then along came Facebook and all of a sudden social media was all the rage.

Each of these services has a huge following: Twitter has an estimated 200 million users, LinkedIn has 47 million worldwide and Facebook reportedly has around 750 million.

These are just the big boys though, on top of these are other networks such as Plaxo, Bebo, MySpace and Google’s latest idea, Google+. The latter could well be the one to watch though, in just four weeks and even with a limited invitation programme, Google+ has accrued 25 million users.

The boom in all these services has been partly driven by the uptake of app-enabled phones such as the iPhone and Android devices. However, following the recent riots in England a cloud has started to appear over social media.

The police discovered that some participants were using BlackBerry’s messaging service BBM, which is encrypted, to organise the riots. This, and the use of Twitter and Facebook, has led to calls for the police to be able to suspend social media in times of disquiet.

On the flipside of this, the uprisings in the Middle East in late 2010 and early 2011, dubbed the Arab Spring, were helped by the use of social media. Here, in the west, these uprisings were roundly supported and the moves by the Egyptian government to stop its citizens accessing the internet were roundly condemned.

There is, of course, a huge difference between the struggle for human rights and democracy in these Arab states and the mindless rioting in England. That said though, at what point is it deemed necessary to turn these services off and who will decide?

Contempt of court

The other major issue that has come up with Twitter was when some users made the most of the relative anonymity of the service to reveal the names of celebrities who had taken out the so-called super-injunctions to cover up alleged indiscretions.

By tweeting the names of the celebrities involved, the Twitter users were blatantly flouting these court injunctions in a bid, I believe, to show how pointless they were. The tweets made a mockery of the law that was preventing newspapers and TV stations from broadcasting the names when they obviously knew them.

The fact that it all came to a head when an MP said the name of the person in the House of Commons, and was therefore protected by parliamentary privilege, just goes to show the power that Twitter now has.

Following on from this is the statement from Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, when he said that trial judges would have the power to allow the use of Twitter in court rooms. This is a major step, seeing as electronic recording isn’t permitted in court rooms.

He said: ‘The use of an unobtrusive, hand-held, virtually silent piece of modern equipment for the purposes of simultaneous reporting of proceedings to the outside world as they unfold in court is generally unlikely to interfere with the proper administration of justice.’

But where do you draw the line? The internet has turned everyone into a publisher. As a trained journalist I had to learn what you can and cannot report when covering court proceedings so that neither I, nor my publication, would end up in court ourselves.

By allowing the use of Twitter anyone can comment on a case, which could lead to the publication of information that is revealed to the court, but not the jury, which could then in turn jeopardise a case. If this were to happen in a newspaper, then it would be in contempt of court; if it’s done on Twitter this would be harder, perhaps impossible, to do.

Where next?

LinkedIn was created in 2002, before Facebook, and before that there was MySpace and Friends Reunited, both of which are now shadows of their former selves. This all shows us that although Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and perhaps even Google+ are top dogs at the moment, they won’t be forever.

Even though each of them adds new features and tweaks existing ones, they remain the same thing at their core. Their replacements may well be out there and exist already, or, as is more likely, they haven’t been invented yet. So what might they entail?

If we can take one thing from all the networks so far it’s that people love to link to others, often those they have never met and are unlikely to. So extended networks is one possibility.

The next key element is messaging. When Twitter launched I, and many others, wondered how you could say what you wanted to with only 140 characters, but now it feels almost natural. Also I tend to avoid any Facebook status updates that are longer than a tweet. So short messaging is the second requirement.

What else - images, video, files and folders? With Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ you can embed video links from sites like YouTube and attach photos, but what about sending text?

You can’t attach documents in any way, but image sites like Flickr enable you to share photos and permit selected users to download files. So the third thing would be around audio and video files so that they can be easily shared between users. The issue of copyright would need to be taken into consideration though.

I think the final issue will need to be privacy. Facebook, and more recently LinkedIn, have both incurred the wrath of their members with their privacy settings. Initially, Facebook’s settings were just too weak and its Beacon idea was poorly thought-out. Any new network needs to lock down the settings and leave it to the user to then slacken when they want to.

In June 2011 the UN declared that ‘disconnecting people from the internet is a human rights violation and against international law’. With the rise of social media and the power it gives to individuals, how long before it too is seen in the same light?

Social media stats

  • Twitter generates over 200 million tweets and 1.6 billion search queries every day.
  • Facebook reportedly had 138.9 million monthly unique US visitors in May 2011.
  • News International bought MySpace for $580 million in 2005 and then sold it for $35 million in 2011.
  • In 2005 ITV bought Friends Reunited for £175 million but then sold it on in 2009 for £25 million.
  • Over 60 per cent of tweets are sent via the internet as opposed to from an app.
  • In 2011 Twitter bought the UK-based TweetDeck for £25 million.