The future of digital media? You had better look back five years

During Social Media Week 2012 in London, I attended a panel discussion where the future of social media was to be debated. I was intrigued by this topic and thought to myself: “Yes, they are going to give me some answers”.

I left feeling rather disappointed. There were five social media experts on the panel and they did not give us any idea about what the future looks like in social media. I was expecting a fiery debate about what will happen in the next five years but, instead, we got sage philosophical answers to our questions.

Can you look into the future?

I believe that this lack of foresight may be a general phenomenon as it is very hard to distinguish what digital media is going to look like even one year down the road. Most of us who have been to a job interview have been asked the question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” As you know, it is impossible to say what things are going to be like five years into your future.

You make up an answer and reply: “I see myself as a positive contributor to the success of this company”. (They will love that answer for sure.)

The same happens when you ask a digital media expert what the digital world will look like in five years’ time. They can’t tell you. But one thing is for sure, there will be amazing developments even if we can’t say exactly what these will be or where or how they will come into being. I can guess that new social networks will be born, that we will live in increasingly digitalised homes and that we will be even more reliant on our smartphones.

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Sofie says: Digital leaders keep up-to-date with what’s going on in the digital world. They won’t tell you that they know what will happen in the next five years, because they can only guess.   

Looking backwards

When I’m teaching and discussing social media and digital media I used to ask my students what will happen in the future. It’s very hard to get the conversation going so I’ve taken a different approach.

I do an exercise that is about looking backwards, looking at how you used digital media five years ago and how that has changed.

Some of the questions I ask are

“Did you have a smartphone five years ago?” Often, only one or two people in the audience had a smartphone five years ago whereas today 95% of the people I meet have a smartphone.

Another question I ask people is: “How did you listen to music five years ago?” Lots of people used to listen to online music illegally. Things are different today as there are so many opportunities to subscribe to a wide variety of music services online, free or paid for.

Another big development in digital media has been online reviews. I ask my audience: “Did you use to read a review before you booked a restaurant or hotel five years ago?”

Today, we are unlikely to book a new restaurant or hotel without reading a review about it online first. If the reviews and testimonials are good, then we pick it. We make more of our consumer choices based on online reviews using social media.

We also read about businesses and people online. A good testimonial on a social media profile gives a person much more credibility and you get a great first impression of them.

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Another question I ask is: “What kind of browser did you use when you were surfing the internet five years ago?” Most only used Internet Explorer.

Today, you have both Google Chrome and Firefox. Both of these browsers allow you to add several extensions and plugins. It has made life a lot easier for us and there are lots of funky things you can do. This didn’t exist five years ago.

Online networking

One central aspects of what has changed in the last five years is that most people were not a member of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. They might have been a member of one online network back then, but now more people are on all three of these networks, plus other online networks as well.

Online videos

How we use online videos has significantly changed our online behaviour. YouTube was set up in 2006. It was then quickly bought by Google, and Google has developed it into an amazing source of information.

I personally almost never watched online videos five years ago, but today I watch 20 videos on YouTube per week. Five years ago, internet speed was not very fast and the video content was not that exciting either. Now, as it has improved remarkably, we are spending more time there.

In 2012, we watched four billion videos per day on average. 4G mobile technologies are being introduced to more and more countries. I can assure you that in the next year, when more people have smartphones with 4G, they are going to watch many more online videos on their phones. The faster 4G network will improve the user experience.

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When we look into the future and try to figure out what is going to happen five years from now, we can learn a lot by looking backwards.

We are experts in our own history. Look at your life. Think about what you did with social media five years ago. How did you use the internet and digital tools? When you examine your own digital world you will better understand how quickly it will change in the future.

We are living in a world full of opportunities and entrepreneurs are going to explore and expand what’s possible.


Sofie Sandell is the author of the book ‘Digital Leadership – Dare to be creative, it’s easier than you think’, to be published soon.

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