macro_trendsAs a journalist bungling around the startup ecosystem I sometimes find myself mired in day-to-day minutiae – a media-seeking startup’s Series A, customer backlash from changes to a social network’s terms of service, new apps, the latest Twitter feuds. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.

As the year has progressed, however, I’ve come to recognize several macro trends. I’m not talking about “social,” the ubiquitous buzzword of the past few years. I’m talking about things that are more fundamental and which make social possible. They’re not just gerrymandering the business landscape. They’re altering who we are as human beings and how we interact with the world around us.

The interface

In the late 1990s I, like many of my colleagues, had a Palm Pilot, which, in addition to the calendar and address book, I used for taking notes (during interviews). To write I used a small plastic stylus, and the letters I scrawled were converted to typewritten text rendered on the screen. For the 18 months the Palm Pilot was, outside of my laptop, my primary digital device, I scratched thousands of words on it; when it ran out of juice for the last time sections of screen had been scraped away.

Here’s what’s interesting, though: The way I wrote on the Palm Pilot all those months influenced how I handled a pen on paper. It changed, for instance, how I wrote a capital “E,” which, up to that point, had never before been an issue. On a Palm Pilot I had to make a backwards 3, which is how I started writing it elsewhere. As with the Palm Pilot, any device we interact with it, whether it’s a laptop, smartphone, or other digital or electronic gadgetry, can influence our behavior. And any company that controls a user’s interface through an operating system or application can subtly manipulate how we see the world.

Which is one reason companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft are duking it out over whose system you’ll tune into every day. In media, we call it a battle for eyeballs. Here, though, it’s a scrum for consumers’ attention and, ultimately, loyalty. The average American adult and kid spends roughly eight hours a day in front of a screen of some sort.

Whoever gets it for a portion of the day will shape how we interact with the world, the Web, and digital points in between.

Ecosystems

Amazon has one. So do Facebook, eBay, and Twitter. Apple has several, as does Google. Every appmaker would love to conjure one up. In the physical realm Nespresso has one. Wal-Mart has one (as soon as you step into one of its stores). Tesla is on its way to developing one nationwide. What they all have in common is they have or are spawning entire ecosystems, which gives them enviable opportunities for upselling.

The giant consumer products company of the last century – say, Procter & Gamble – followed a fairly simple business strategy: create products consumers want, market the hell out of them, and control the distribution pipelines into stores. But the barriers to entry are much lower online, and a business like Amazon or Google doesn’t have protection from competitors, unless they can lock users into their ecosystems. Amazon does it through Kindle ereaders and Kindle books, its famously razor-thin margin-fueled low prices, Amazon Marketplace and Amazon Prime, its membership to better, faster shipping and digital downloads. Nespresso does it by selling you the coffee machines and coffee capsules while Tesla wants to sell you the car and give you the battery juice free.

What they all want is for you to be an enthusiastic, money-wielding captive audience.

The cloud

You thought the Internet had changed media and digitization had threatened the recording industry, decoupling single songs from albums and delaminating music from vinyl, tapes, and compact discs. Now we have the cloud, which is taking it a step further: It’s freed content from being sold per unit and turned it into all-you-can-eat subscription models. Suddenly a song on its lonesome isn’t worth 99 cents (or $1.29) anymore.

This is being played out on Spotify, MOG, Pandora and all those other streaming music services. I experienced this first hand after I began subscribing to MOG, a subscription service (it calls itself an online community devoted to music) that streams songs at 320kbs for 10 bucks a month. Since then I don’t think I’ve bought a single song from iTunes. This despite my owning around 15,000 songs – most ripped from compact discs at Apple Lossless levels, downloaded at 256kbs from the iTunes store, and recorded from vinyl on a digital turntable.

Consumer Power

For the past 50 years customer service has been the backwater of a business. Because it didn’t add directly to a company’s bottom line it was deemed as important to a business’s ultimate well being as the human resources  department. Purchase a defective blow dryer or need help troubleshooting a problem with a new stereo and you dialed in to a call center, hoping you wouldn’t be placed on hold in an infinite call loop and praying someone would help you. If you felt gypped you might gripe to friends and family members or write the company a blistering letter to be filed away where no one would see it. With the emergence of social media, however, where one bad experience can go viral via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, becoming the equivalent of a hit song and tarnishing a company’s reputation, and the advent of consumer reviews on Amazon, Yelp, Apple’s App Store, and others, there’s far greater transparency.

Suddenly the balance of power has shifted to the consumer, whose influence spreads far and wide, and companies are scrambling to keep up. A number of companies – appliance makers, airlines, computer manufacturers, fast food chains, retailers, telecommunication companies – have found themselves ensnared in nightmare social media scenarios, events that five years ago would likely not have pricked the public’s consciousness.

Gamification

You know it’s a hot topic when the New York Times catches on (the Times is ON IT!), as it did a few days ago with an article on gamification that could have been written two years ago. But it’s true that games have been creeping into almost every facet of our lives. Because they’re all about players achieving goals while having fun – a very powerful, very human drive – an array of companies such as Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Deloitte, Sun, IBM, L’Oreal, Canon, Lexus, Fedex, UPS and countless others embraced games to make their workers more satisfied, better-trained and focused on their jobs, as well as to improve products and services. Games are transforming health care, education, marketing, the military, scientific research, among others. In the world we’re entering, everyone is a player – even if you’re not aware you’re playing.

These are some of my big picture predictions for 2013 and beyond. What are yours? Leave them in the comments and we can discuss.

[Image courtesy JD Hancock]