Check out the panels or exhibitors at this year’s SXSW and you’ll see how many longstanding social media and web app challenges now have compelling, or at least viable, solutions.
Staying on top of the latest social media news? Check. Coordinating the 5 different computers to you need to manage your life online? Check and check. Finding your online friends onto the real world so that you can have a beer together? Check, check, and check.
With so many solutions on display, the still-unsolved problems are all the more conspicuous. Here are five of the toughest problems that social media and web applications still haven’t successfully addressed:
Contact list overload: If you sign up even a handful of social networks and web services — think Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and FourSquare — you’ve got multiple lists of contacts to manage in each place. Yes, most of these services let you import contacts from at least two of the others, and even do repeat imports to find friends who’ve recently signed up for a service you’ve used for a while. But you get the most out of each of these social tools when you take the time to groom your contacts, organizing them around different contexts and scaling your level of contact to the closeness of your relationship. But there is no way to keep your Twitter lists in sync with your Facebook lists, or to create LinkedIn relationships that reflect your contact organization in Gmail. With so many networks and contacts to keep organized, no wonder we are unable to have a fully satisfying experience with any one network.
Search overload: Online search remains largely disconnected from the social web, even though social networks and applications have become an ever-bigger part of the online experience. Jump from browsing Facebook to doing a Google search, and you’ll barely see the influence of the social web on the results that get delivered. The social search panel generated a lively conversation at SXSW about tools that let you crowdsource the search process, but we’re only beginning to see the incorporation of socially-produced knowledge into our primary search tools. When Google search knows what I want to see based on who I’m friends with on Twitter, Facebook and FourSquare — and more crucially, who I pay attention to — then it will get interesting. Meanwhile, you’ll continue to slog through pages of irrelevant search results.
Information overload: RSS started as a way to aggregate all the streams of content we found online, but today we’re more likely to be drowned in a river of feeds — not to mention e-mail, texts, updates, voicemail transcriptions….need I go on? We’ve got great tools for creating, finding, organizing and viewing content, but very little to help us thin out and manage the volume of information that now flows online. The challenge of information overload and attention management isn’t just a technical problem, but some better tools would sure help.
Brand overload: Now that social media is the hot thing in marketing, big brands have moved in to seize the opportunities for brand- and relationship building. From destination sites to heavily-branded presences on Facebook and other networks, more and more of the social web feels like an immersive ad. Marketers, social networks and (most of all!) consumers have a stake in finding new ways to create value for site sponsors and advertisers, without eroding the authenticity and trust that are essential to the success of online relationships and social networks.
Apathy overload: In her keynote address, designer & sustainability advocate Valerie Casey pointed out that the designers and developers at SXSW represent the gatekeepers of what is rapidly becoming the world’s most influential medium. Yet only a sliver of that brain power is trained on the world’s pressing environmental and social problems. That sliver has generated some interesting experiments and examples of how social media can crowdsource social and environmental solutions and catalyze social change, but we’ve yet to see any evidence that social media will deliver on its world-changing potential. Finding and deploying compelling, scalable models for social and environmental innovation online may be the social web’s toughest challenge — and its most crucial one.
If these challenges are still unsolved, it’s because few of them are amenable to a strictly technical solution. Design, strategy and most of all social analysis will all be needed to find answers to the problems above.
Over the next few weeks I’ll talk to SXSW attendees who’ve delved into these challenges, and share their thoughts on how best to solve them — as well as on how we can all cope until the solution is in hand.