Net Gain

This is the third in a series of 12 posts expounding on the 2011 forecasts in the annual trends report from Salzman, president of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR and an internationally respected trendspotter.

There's a loss-of-faith crisis, and it's as movement-ready as the one that led Jerry Rubin to pen the Yippie manifesto in 1968. That was the genesis of the famous "Don't trust anyone over 30" message that went viral in the election that ushered in President Richard Nixon (aka Tricky Dick). Today, our trust deficit feels just as hairy. In the United States, people say they don't trust politicians, institutions, the media, the schools or the direction of the country. In ceremonial Japan, which has one of the world's fastest-growing divorce rates, divorcing couples gather for a ritual smash (with a hammer) of their wedding rings, while toasting to never seeing each other again.

Even trust by institutions is lacking: Trust icon Standard & Poor's assigned the U.K. and its skinny austerity budget just a one-in-three chance of working this summer.

To compensate for this trust shutout, citizens of the world (who haven't lost trust in self-reliance or technology) are increasingly looking to their networks. They're building on the cascades of bonds that connectivity promises to keep flowing. They've already learned to trust in e-commerce for what it offers (timeliness, convenience, price), as demonstrated by the ongoing popularity of eBay, Amazon and even the "crazy business idea" that was FreshDirect's appeal to shoppers for urban groceries. (The strategy extended to FreshDirect's developing an iPhone app--in New York, some 66 percent of its users have smart phones--for mobile ordering.)

Now, increasingly, global citizens are turning to the Internet to find the people they want in their lives. It's a needs shift from consumption to communication with other real beings, and it's proving that online, thanks to the Network Effect, there's a virtually unlimited supply not only of stuff but also of the people you need in your life. Spin this web from macro to micro. Web-in-use numbers are staggering and on the rise; there are almost 2 billion Internet users worldwide (239 million in the U.S.), 51 million in the U.K., 45 million in France, 81 million in India and a whopping 420 million in China (which is adding 600,000 broadband users per month). But of the top four places where Internet users are spending their time--Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook, respectively--it's Facebook that wins the lion's share, at more than seven hours per month. That exceeds the time people are spending on the other three combined.

But it's not distraction that people are seeking in their online match-ups; it's real human connections. Can it be any accident that one of the hottest dance songs in Europe this month (by Duck Sauce) has just one lyric--"Barbra Streisand"--in homage to the chanteuse who brought us "People Who Need People" back in 1964?

We can't forget to thank social media for nurturing the where-to-find-your-new-BFF quests. Twitter has held the dialogue to 140 characters or less, but players on this field of dreams have us communicating on non-space-restrained sites, from LinkedIn ("Relationships Matter") and Google's networking platform Orkut to Foursquare (microcosm'd to the level of finding others in your city) and Chinese IM site QQ, French school-reunion site Copains d'avant, and Gowalla, which lets you "stamp your passport" on your phone. On all these new force fields--not to mention, eHarmony or scads of humans wishing and hoping and dreaming of meeting their fellow enthusiasts, sufferers, travelers, worshipers or partners, and using their networks to make that entirely real.

That plugging-in now affords us unlimited possible partners for everything from hobbies to work to networking to marrying--or just finding people to hang out with--and might manifest the single biggest social change we've experienced since the Summer of Love. Really what's at work is a lot more than the old saw that loneliness is the most entrenched of human emotions. Keyboards and mobile devices have become touch extensions for many Americans, a phenomenon that might have helped Thumb Man, a Facebook public figure ("the bloke that looks like a thumb"), amass more than 12,000 "likes" between March and April last year.

Given that the interactivity value is no longer just human-to-product but human-to-human, I predict that one new and huge ideal applied to time spent online will be reciprocity (which goes hand in hand with people calculating just how precisely they're expressing their values to their networks).

This should all come as no surprise to brands that found out with YouTube that group amusements would reliably generate a following, at least for a short while--as Mentos saw in 2006 when its YouTube video of a mint exploding in a glass of Diet Coke upsurged its fan base on Facebook (temporarily).

Next year, the do-as-your-friends-do phenomenon will find people abandoning false personas on social media and moving into a calculated but real projection of their values--people showing each other online what they're really about.

What they'll share with others--whether a passion for guitar picking or the game of Go, recovery from addiction or an addiction to dog training--will show that you are your networks and your networks are you. The more niche the passion, the more social the match experience will be. As time goes by, expect these rich connections to increase an ambient awareness about the environment of networks, where it feels good to be (virtually) and to be connected (actually). And expect innovative individuals to increase their net worth as they use their own power of influence to generate revenue--their personal CPMs, a phenomenon I have been predicting and waiting for for nearly three years--by recognizing the power of their social cachet, then leveraging it and charging for access to it.