Imagine a future where you’ll be able to physically reach out to poke your Facebook friends (gross), where tweets are the de facto mode of communication for large-scale emergencies (cool), and where people log into Google Plus for more than just wondering, “Are people using Google Plus yet?” (Okay, okay, we couldn’t help ourselves with that one — but really, we actually are, so put us in your circles already.)
If those scenarios seem far-fetched, perhaps you’re thinking too near-term. Whether it’s through major acquisitions or seemingly minor service enhancements, the major social networks are making changes to their products on a weekly, daily, even hourly basis. Fortune asked a few experts to daydream about where these networks might be five and 10 years down the line. Their responses were surprisingly realistic.
Breaking the biggest news of the month, if not the year, Facebook (FB) set the social scene ablaze with its March 25 acquisition of Oculus VR, valued at approximately $2 billion. A sharp turn in Facebook’s product road map, the purchase has pundits imagining all sorts of crossovers for the social network and virtual reality technology.
“The Oculus purchase further shows how Facebook will be obsessed with staying relevant by buying the next big thing,” says Paul Berry, founder and CEO of New York City-based social publishing platform RebelMouse. Through this and other acquisitions, Berry thinks Facebook will become a brand-holding company in the future, similar to Viacom or Hearst. “I see them, better than anyone else, using their market capitalization to create even bigger market cap for the Instagrams or WhatsApps,” he says.
But internally, Facebook may split over dueling objectives, says Michael Jones, CTO of Portland, Ore.-based Little Bird, a company that provides social influencer analytics and research. “[Facebook] used to be a lot more fun and idealistic, and now that they’re public, there is extreme pressure upon that organization to grow up quickly and to monetize,” he says. This “great divide” will continue on for years, as half of the company drives toward generating revenue while the rest pursues the founding ideals of authentic engagement and connecting the world.
But both the connections and revenue may come as a result of the Oculus purchase, says Arvind Bhatia, managing director of equity research for Birmingham, Ala.-based Sterne Agee. In five years, Bhatia expects Facebook to grab a much larger piece of the advertising market, graph search to become bigger, and the company to make more inroads in e-commerce. Then, with its ancillary networks like WhatsApp and Instagram, Facebook will be able to run its own platform, rather than operate through Android and iOS.
“They are being bypassed on the mobile platform,” Bhatia says. “They want to be the next Android, and so the only way to do that was to start from scratch, and that’s what they’re doing with this virtual reality technology.”
Facebook’s Oculus acquisition seems like a page out of Google’s (GOOG) book, similar to the search giant’s purchase of Nest Labs for $3.2 billion in January. As a result, it appears the two companies are now in a tech-fueled cold war. And even though the hardware is getting all the headlines in this fight, don’t overlook the networks themselves as battle’s front lines.
While Google Plus may not survive the next five or 10 years — at least not under that name — its user base will live on in the tools connected to the network, Berry argues. “Because of this, Google has the most important social network, and the most active one in Gmail,” he says, adding that Hangouts, the former Talk, and Voice will be even more important as Android matures. “They will become absolute monsters, compared to what they are now.”
Likewise, Jones is optimistic, saying Google Plus will reach its tipping point in the next five or 10 years — whether it’s under the same moniker or not. “Thus far, from a brand perspective, it’s been a ghost town,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of metrics about engagement, [but] nobody has cracked the code over Google Plus.” But he doesn’t take Google’s apps and services for granted either, citing YouTube, Drive, Calendar, and Gmail as keys to making the social network relevant — especially with Mountain View’s ever-growing collection of data — from sentiment and search to insights from e-mail and appointment mining.
Just as Facebook could evolve into a complicated conglomeration of services and brands, Twitter (TWTR) may continue to differentiate itself through its simplicity. But first, the network has to continue monetizing, and in Berry’s view, over the next five years Twitter’s monetization will be faster than its user adoption. “They are so simple and so public, and it works so much data around what you are interested in — the fact that it’s all public is perfect for advertising,” he says. “I think it achieves being the short, public, status updates of the Internet.”
Meanwhile, Twitter’s slow growth gives Bhatia cause for concern. While he thinks the network will continue to grow, he believes it won’t equal Facebook’s user base. “And already Instagram is catching up,” he says. “While Facebook is going to become one of the four horsemen of technology, Twitter will be an interesting, decent-sized company, but not a mainstay, if you will.”
But according to Jones, it’s not all about the users. What sets Twitter apart is that, unlike Facebook, the network is so open. As data science continues to boom, this openness will give Twitter increasing utility, and because of this he sees the long-shot possibly that the service gets bought out by a giant organization, like the United Nations, for dissemination and collection of data on a scale never imagined.
“There’s something big in store for them, just because it’s simple and it works,” Jones says.
Working is the key to LinkedIn’s (LNKD) social network, and it has been from the start. This singular focus gives the network continued high potential over the next five to 10 years, even while users try to figure out what, exactly, to do on it. “I think they’re going to win as people begin to understand the type of content they should share on LinkedIn,” says Berry, who thinks the network will emerge as the clear place to post professional, career-oriented content.
Of course, the data that LinkedIn amasses is wildly valuable, Jones says. “If you want the most up-to-date listing of who’s working where, it’s LinkedIn — people update that immediately,” he says. As a result, LinkedIn will continue to dominate as the de facto business-to-business social network. And through its data, a number of LinkedIn products could emerge in coming years, especially around recruiting and even employee retention.
But the biggest game-changer for LinkedIn — and indeed, all of the social networks — is where the company is headed next: China. In February, LinkedIn announced a beta version of its Chinese site. “I think it’s a new platform that will do well in China,” says Bhatia, who sees LinkedIn succeeding wildly in China over the next five years. “They have support from the Chinese government, they are going to provide a useful service there, and I think their model makes sense,” he says. LinkedIn’s preferred access is a competitive advantage that the other social networks — who have been shut out by the Chinese government — can’t match and may position it better than any other for growth in the next five or 10 years.