Alright, so trying to predict the digital future can be a bit... risky. For every Zuckerberg-esque stroke of foresight, there have been far more embarrassing missteps, say, an insane 1995 Newsweek editorial explaining why the internet could never last as an information source, or a long-removed-from-the-web SNL sketch I remember from my childhood, mocking texting as a clunky, illogical medium. It's definitely a gamble.
But if anyone’s equipped to do it, it’s probably the award-winning minds at HUGE, the digital advertising juggernaut behind OKCupid’s much-discussed new blind dating app, HBO GO, and countless other campaigns that have quietly become part of daily life. The company has not only survived more than a decade’s worth of relentless digital shakeups, they’ve thrived, taking on numerous foreign offices, hundreds more employees, an endless string of high-profile clients. And after all, it's their job not just to think about the answers to inevitable questions about our future with the web, but to think of the right ones.
As such, we went to their offices to meet with a roundtable of in-house experts (Communications Director Sam Weston, Director of Search Andrew Delamarter, Senior Analyst Hannah Poferl, and Principal Developer Jose Muanis), and asked them to look into their respective crystal balls — that is how this stuff works, isn't it? — on what, exactly, may lie ahead in the next decade for the "open web" as we know it. Anything could happen, it seems, but a few things are more clear than others.
If there's one concrete point that emerged from this whole thing, it's that data is, and will continue to be, king. It's already the driving force behind profits for most social media companies, according to Muanis. "The only money they make nowadays is by selling statistical data. What people are interested in, what they might buy in each region, depending on the site's privacy terms and things like that."
You've probably noticed this part already, courtesy of angry, re-posted Facebook statuses, or that time when everyone quit Instagram. "We keep getting stuck in this rut where every time Facebook changes its privacy settings or someone introduces a new personalized product, there's an eruption of discontent among privacy advocates on the web," Weston noted. Aside from a number of older users who are more inclined to be suspicious of having their data shared, there's also the fundamental "existential crisis" of social media to be considered.
"There's the me that I project to the world on Facebook that I want you to know," Weston explained, "and there's how I actually use the web — say, the porn sites I visited, or the searches I executed because I didn't know the answer to an obvious question. All those things are things that nobody want to be the 'them' in public."
As such, there will most likely be a small but passionate sector of privacy advocates focused on keeping their data offline ("Everyone loves 'open' until they don't," says Delamarter), and maybe even creating multiple digital "identities" for different purposes. Which is all part of the plan, anyway, with the market's focus driving ever more toward niches. "They'll be an audience someone needs to cater to," said Weston.
But it's not all about personal, demographic information going public in a way that most obviously benefits businesses. It's also about concrete, publicly useful data, Poferl explained, citing a coworker who incorporated Google's data set to help create a comprehensive map of volunteer locations during Sandy, or the World Bank's investment in putting information online for amateur statisticians to use in potentially groundbreaking research. Sooner rather than later, almost everything will be, in some form or another, out in the open.
And, of course, with new uses of potentially sensitive information, there will (by necessity) be new legal and industry standards that crop up to deal with them. It will likely play out as a game of catch-up, though. "I think most of our laws are pretty antiquated, and most of the people making our laws are pretty illiterate when it comes to these things," Weston said. Most likely, some event or another will have to cause a significant public outcry before anything gets done. That, and companies like Google and Facebook would have to stop playing what is essentially a waiting game, biding time while younger users, more used to living their lives in public, come up through the ranks, presumably negating a more immediate conversation about privacy and regulations.
But even within the next five years, kids born in 1990 will, statistically, be starting to have kids of their own. Demographic preferences will have changed no matter what, creating totally different demands on all businesses, not just tech companies. "Online marketing was really kind of stable for about ten years," said Delamarter , "but with mobile and social there's been this heart attack. Now, anyone can be a PR expert if they have enough Twitter followers, it's not a matter of getting some guy in a lab coat."
Meaning, then, that successful companies will be the ones that have adapted to this, and the enabling technologies that Weston describes as "not quite there yet" will, it's safe to say, be "there."
You know, definitely keep your computer around for now (unless you're dying for an excuse to throw it out and buy a new one, I guess) but do get used to the idea that it may not be that helpful in your day-to-day for much longer. "It's the post-search era," Delamarter explains, noting that Siri's current default after a failed command is already an old-school internet search. "There will always be a web, it'll just be sort of where the garbage is, and where you go when you have no other ideas. It'll be like duct tape — when you don't know what else to do, you use that." In other words, devices (maybe a "digital concierge," not necessarily something we consider a phone, Delamarter noted), will be better than ever at understanding what you want, and simply doing it.
Weston concurs, "We'll have more sophisticated users. It may take 15 years, but if you don't know code, or if you don't understand how some of the things work under the hood, you could be illiterate in a way. You don't necessarily have to understand how to fix an engine or change a car tire, but people still learn about the basics."
And with this comes the logical (if optimistic) proposition that the job market will, in a way, adjust accordingly. You didn't think I wouldn't ask about the supposed death of media (and media jobs), did you? "People that can write and think and interpret will still be valuable," Weston said, "but they'll be paid differently. As brands move to developing more individualized, personalized experiences, they'll assume some of that workforce." Essentially, functions that used to be the territory of marketing and PR are likely to expand into something of an editorial, social hybrid as companies direct more resources toward user experience.
As for actual, traditional publications, the jury's still out, but when it comes to true tech nerds, well, the possibilities are as boundless as you might guess. "The internet is really hard, and the people who are good at it all want to work at Facebook and Instagram," said Weston, "but the opportunities and the big challenges are actually at the businesses that will die soon if they don't get to those people." So we did, eventually, come to a few big-picture conclusions here, and can all check back in after a decade to see if an "I told you so" is in order. In the meantime, now seems like as good a time as any to brush up on my HTML.
Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.