Exploring new frontiers in the social media landscape


The head of the foundation which runs Wikipedia believes social media will expand more

LIKE IT or loathe it, social media is here to stay. And with an increasing number of companies competing for users, social media is slowly becoming entangled in everyday lives.

Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are all well-known names, with the last’s recent flotation on the stock market making headlines as its shares doubled in value on their first trading day.

And it’s becoming increasingly common to keep in contact with family and friends via Facebook, or make contacts through Twitter.

The rivalry in the social media space has stepped up a gear in recent days with the launch of Google+, a new social network that is currently in “field trial” and generating hype every day that users are restricted from joining.

Social media has changed the way we interact, the way we share information, and how we can build communities. One of the most successful examples of this is Wikipedia, the online user-edited encyclopaedia, and one of the projects of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Once described by Wiredco-founder Kevin Kelly as “impossible in theory, but possible in practice”, the site has grown in popularity over the years. Officially, it has 425 million users, as measured by Comscore. But under-16s are left out of such research for privacy reasons, meaning the true figure is likely to be far higher.

Coming from a background of business development, research and high-tech start-ups, Wikimedia Foundation’s managing director Kul Wadhwa has a significant wealth of experience in the technology field.

“Technology in general was what I was interested in, but also how it affected individuals,” he said.

“I was interested in online video back in 1992, but also in digital transactions.”

Wadhwa built his first start-up when he was in Japan, a digital certification service, and has been involved in several more since.

“I worked with a couple of my friends and tried to do a start-up on video search, but we were way too early,” he said. “I worked on a toolbar with some other folks but we were kind of late in that respect.”

He has also worked in the video games industry, held a position at Stanford University and in economic research at the non-profit global policy think tank the Rand Corporation.

Wadhwa got involved with Wikipedia in 2008. It’s the longest he has ever stayed in a job.

“It’s because things change very quickly. I look at what’s the kind of work I could do that would be interesting. The job is just a way of actually doing it,” he said.

“I was always interested in the Wikipedia community. I could have done a lot of other things in the start-up world but I was always partly interested in community and helping society. I started out doing research in poverty, and this was a good way to bring all those things together.”

The social media landscape is only going to get bigger, Wadhwa says. “I think at least for the time being it’s going to continue to increase. I think you’ve kind of just scratched the surface on a lot of ways people are going to interact,” he said.

“A lot of it is basically [that] people want to connect. I think it’s an extension of normal behaviour into the technology world, and there are lots more applications people want to see.”

One area where he thinks social media could be a game changer is education. Wadhwa is currently involved in a collaborative education project that could change how people work together.

“We’re trying to create new software for people to collaborate in different areas, and that’s part of the social media landscape as well, where teachers are going to have to change,” he said. “There’s a lot of forces that are basically impacting social media.”

Mobile too is going to provide a major driver for digital media, as consumers demand new ways to access information. It all adds up to a changing face of social interaction.

“I feel the way people interact with each other is going to completely change. I’ve been focused a lot on education, but I think when you see different social groups and the way people interact, a lot of those barriers are going to change,” Wadhwa said.

“People are going to interact a lot and social media is going to be part of that process. We’ve already seen this, but on the news side, people are more involved in responding to that process. I see sharing happening hopefully more and more, and I think that’s an improvement and a betterment to society.”

But while digital media has brought many advantages to consumers and their social interactions, there has also been a knock-on effect elsewhere. Traditional media has been hit hard by the changes over the past few years, and its not quite finished yet

One of the strengths of Wikipedia, for example, is in how it has built its community. “People feel like they have a stake in it,” he said, meaning that they are invested in its success or failure.

It’s a relationship that has expanded and grown over the years that Wikipedia has been in operation. The project is funded by donations from its members. There are some 100,000 active editors on the site, but about one million registered overall.

The foundation only has to intervene to remove an article a couple of times a year. The community generally polices the articles, and is quick to react to instances of copyright infringement, for example, or malicious edits.

The rise of social media and greater user interaction doesn’t mean the end of traditional media companies, however; it simply means that companies will have to adapt to the new trends.

“I think that if the business model is what’s going to be driving the survival of a lot of these organisations, it’s going to have to change radically, or you’re basically dead,” he said.

“Even the way people behave with information now has changed. They rely on social groups a little bit more. They get different pieces of articles, they get them at different times and in different formats.

“Technology right now has been so disruptive,” he said. “It changed marketing and distribution. And its changed user behaviour. User behaviour has fundamentally changed, and it’s going to continue to.”