Social animal 2.0. Thanks to the popularity and performance of social collaboration technologies and mechanisms, including social networks, voice channels, online groups, blogs, and other electronic messaging systems, the size and diversity of networks of personal relationships will continue to grow. These networks will include acquaintances ranging far beyond the traditional groups of family, friends, and work colleagues to include friends of friends, online acquaintances, and anonymous members of interest groups. Already, 49 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds in Europe are savvy users of social networks.
One result will be the rapid creation of fast-moving political and business pressures — such as the tidal wave of electronic interest created by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. The average person in 2020 will live within a web of 200 to 300 contacts, maintained daily through a variety of channels. Even within the family, the need for physical proximity will be reduced through increased digital interaction. Just as Facebook’s “Connect” buttons are already distributed across 80,000 websites and devices, social networks will accompany people throughout their daily activities.
Digital information osmosis. People will dramatically increase their consumption of digital information, much of which will be unverified. The vast pool of information available will allow consumers to pick and choose the information they want, as well as how they want to consume it. “Nonlinear” information consumption will become the norm. And the supply of digital information itself will explode. Walmart already handles more than 1 million sales transactions every hour, feeding databases estimated at more than 2.5 petabytes (2.5 million gigabytes), according to a recent study by the Economist. Cisco has estimated in a much-cited study that it expects Internet traffic to increase 10-fold by 2013, to 667 exabytes (that’s 716 billion gigabytes). Right now, much of this information is pure exhaust — unanalyzed and unanalyzable — but it will soon be put to material economic use.
Broadcast privacy. Concerns about privacy and the security of personal data will decline as consumers come to perceive the benefits of transparency as outweighing the risks, and as mechanisms to secure and process personal information become more sophisticated. The result: The availability of an abundance of real-time, personalized information on people’s presence, online status, physical location, preferred communication channels, friend networks, interests, passions, and shopping habits. Facebook, for instance, already hosts 40 billion photos of its members. The use of social networking increasingly will determine consumption patterns. Viral marketing and positive peer reviews will become essential to commercial success, which will in turn erode the value of traditional marketing and of bricks-and-mortar outlets, and ultimately the concept of brand value itself.
iEverywhere. As privacy concerns dwindle, people’s personal data, such as identity, payment details, shopping preferences, interests, and membership in social communities, will become widely available. Members of Generation C will be able to access their digital life from a multitude of digital interfaces and devices, because they will live in a fully interconnected world in which services and data reside online — in what’s known as cloud computing — rather than on those devices themselves. Today’s consumer electronics already show the way: smartphones, iPads, iPods, netbooks, laptops, PCs, and watches, and the list is sure to grow in the next decade. At the same time, prices for such devices will continue to fall. Netbooks subsidized by telecom operators go for as little as a penny, and they are approaching the US$200 mark in retail outlets. Wireless broadband services, however, will still cost more than $50 per month.
Continuing generation gap. The upper age limit of the digitally literate will rise, as the 50-plus age bracket broadly migrates online. At present, the average 65-year-old spends just two to three hours online in a typical week; in 2020, 65-year-olds will spend closer to eight hours online weekly — though they will remain far below the 16- to 24-year-old group, which already spends 13 hours online weekly. Older people will also continue to lag in the intensity of their digital behavior. Generation C will distance itself further, particularly in the development of its own pervasive culture of communication. That culture has led some observers to dub this group “the silent generation,” as digital communication channels have replaced much of the physical interaction typical of prior generations.