What Will 2012 Mean for Social Media?

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Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters

On the one hand, it’s easy to predict where social media’s going over the next 12 months: more of the same, with the sublime, ridiculous and mundane occurring in equal amounts, both reaffirming and quashing our faith in humanity and technology. But a social media roadmap for 2012? I’m not sure anyone knows what that looks like at this point.

Sure, certain things you can take for granted: the continued rise of Google+ for instance, a service that’s coming into its own with increasing numbers of users signing up (it’s also the second-fastest rising search term of 2011). I still don’t have a good enough handle on just what Google+ actually is yet in terms of its personality and what it’ll be good for — Facebook-esque social structure? Twitter-esque idea space? Somewhere in-between? — but that’s half the fun of these things, watching them evolve on their own. (Despite Google+’s similarity to Facebook, I’m leaning towards the “idea space” theory right now, but that’s probably because of how the people I tend to follow use it.)

Along those lines, I’m sure 2012 will see Facebook continue attempting to become all things to all people; I’ll be paying attention to what happens with the company’s legal action with Timelines.com, if only to see whether or not the narrative of Big Corporation Destroys Small Business continues to play out, and what impact (if any) that’ll have on Facebook’s public image and user base, especially as that user base continues to skew older (as the site becomes more mainstream, and early adopters sample alternative services) and more susceptible to that kind of thing. But 2012 is also likely to be the year where streaming movies and television become more common on the site, something that could signal a major shift in the company’s fortunes over the next 12 months — although not as much as the Facebook Phone, a concept I still find vaguely surreal for all kinds of reasons, but something that could massively change what Facebook actually is as a company, even if it doesn’t impact the bottom line social media angle much.

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Speaking of social networks metamorphosing into something else, the re-emergence of MySpace is something that’ll be worth paying attention to next year. I’ve said already that I think the idea of repositioning the company as an indie Spotify is a smart move, but I’m curious about what’s next for the company as it tries to climb out of a black hole. Is there a future for MySpace as a social network? I can imagine a world where it becomes a music industry-specific version of LinkedIn, for instance, but I find that even easier to imagine if the company decides to relaunch with a new name and lose all of the negative connotations of the MySpace brand.

(A slight digression: I can’t help but wonder if Facebook’s relentless attempts to mainstream itself and continually innovate its core product comes from a fear of becoming the Next MySpace in a bad way, after proudly wearing the title back when it was a positive, years ago. One day, I’d love to see a good book investigating all the things that MySpace did wrong, and whether the present outcome was inevitable.)

The Twitter side of the equation is something that’s relatively easy to predict, because — redesigns aside — Twitter never really changes what it does, only how it’s used (we’re now getting “[Blank] is my new jam” auto-updates instead of 4Square auto-updates, true, but it’s essentially the same thing). Outside of a new emphasis on the importance of advertising — something I half-expect will be curtailed as users complain, but we’ll see — the biggest 2012 events for Twitter are likely to be external to the service itself: more organizations following the Library of Congress’ lead and using the service as a official record of sorts, or more analysts looking to draw trends and opinions from it. Also, legal challenges around the service’s anonymous user base is likely to become a big story for Twitter viewers next year, with the company already facing legal action over the identities of Occupy supporters.

(Of course, now that I’ve said Twitter never really changes, we can all pretty much expect a headline along the lines of “Twitter Unveils New Look, Dumps 140 Character Limit In Favor of Embedding Videos And Giving Away Puppies And Kittens” by the end of March.)

But the key thing about social media is this: It’s affected by things we keep failing to anticipate. A year ago, would anyone have predicted the praise and condemnation Facebook and Twitter received in the wake of the Arab Spring or U.K. riots? The technology itself changes, sure, but what makes social media so fascinating (and important) is its capacity to evolve in ways analysts and pundits keep missing.

What will 2012 mean for social media? Like I said at the beginning: more of the same, as wonderful and frustrating and everything in between as that can be. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.