We’ve been living in the age of social media for a long time, but 2011 was the year that all the information we share online began to accrete into something greater than the sum of its parts. It is creating a layer of intelligence that anyone can mine in Web searches and that content creators can use to hone their services.
This is happening more readily because sharing our opinions and photos and status updates online isn’t just a stand-alone application anymore—it’s now an activity embedded into other things. If you’re reading an article online and want to recommend it, you don’t have to click over to Facebook to tell your friends you liked it; now that more and more sites are connecting themselves to Facebook’s “Open Graph,” you can register your approval on Facebook directly from the article’s page. This means that your friends can be guided to it when they show up at the same site. Google launched something similar this year, so that you might see certain search results higher if they’ve been recommended by friends. That was just part of Google’s efforts to improve its grasp on social networking this year. After failing last year to gain traction with a Twitter-like network called Buzz, the search giant rolled out Google+, a service that embeds information sharing into many of Google’s services.
At the same time, the data we generate with our sharing continues to make it easier for advertisers to target product pitches more directly. In some cases, this is leading to new business models, in which intelligence gleaned from social-media chatter is gathered and brokered by companies such as Bluefin Labs. It also is turbocharging Facebook’s existing ad model, setting the company up for the largest Web IPO of 2012.
The stock market was receptive enough to Web companies in 2011 that several had IPOs, including Zynga, Groupon, Pandora, Zillow, LinkedIn, and Renren, a Chinese version of Facebook. However, they quickly ran into skepticism about the sustainability of their growth rates, keeping their stock prices in check.
On the political front, 2011 brought intriguing and important developments as well. We saw the powerful ways social media can amplify dissent and free expression. That challenges authoritarian regimes—and anyone with secrets they’d rather keep. Because of government pressure, several payment providers stopped facilitating donations to WikiLeaks, which made for a rocky year for the organization.
Future applications on the Web were enabled this year by the continuing advancement of HTML5, an emerging set of standards that will make websites faster and more elegant. Researchers also made important progress at improving the security of cloud computing services.
But all the while, our growing reliance on the Web is animating a debate about the potentially catastrophic effects of a cyberwar—an attack, or series of attacks, meant to disable consumer or military resources online. A top computer scientist recently suggested that the U.S. consider striking first against enemies who would be hard to pin down if they struck first. It’s a reminder of the limits of social networking: even as companies like Facebook map more and more of the online world, some sectors will remain in the shadows.