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Social media is finally about the media

Many developments ahead, from Apple's tablet to Facebook's payment platform, add up to the fact that the big focus in social media now is not on how we communicate, but rather what's getting broadcast.

What does the maelstrom of hype around the launch of Apple's tablet device have in common with Google's announcement that select Sundance Film Festival titles will be available for rent on YouTube, or Digg founder Kevin Rose's comments to the U.K.'s Telegraph newspaper that the social news site he founded has "drastic" changes ahead?

A lot, actually. They're all signs that for the first time since the social media craze started to explode a few years ago, the emphasis is finally on "media."

Thank goodness: we'd had enough time marveling over the sometimes-groundbreaking (real-time, searchable tweets coming out of crisis areas), sometimes-banal (two words: sheep-throwing) ways that we could now communicate with one another and broadcast our lives on the Web. There have been more than enough breathless news reports about exactly how Ashton Kutcher has used Twitter to transform his image from meathead comic actor to aspiring new-media mogul. We now all know that Facebook profiles can get you fired, that most celebrities sound even more banal on Twitter than in red-carpet interviews, and that YouTube is great for finding videos of unruly pets and instant-messaging them to your friends when it's a really boring day at the office.

Over the coming months, expect to see a real focus on exactly what can be dispatched across that maze of social connections. And this comes out of necessity. The media industry--particularly print, and to a lesser degree television and film--has to tap into the phenomenon that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dubbed "the social graph" in order to stay afloat. With online ad revenues failing to replace what they're losing from traditional media, they've been forced to consider closing a few doors and charging for content that they'd previously offered for free. Amid this chaos, social-oriented technology companies see dollar signs for themselves.

This is something that was really spurred by Amazon with the launch of its Kindle e-reader, but when it comes to social technology, the Kindle is more or less in the Bronze Age. That'll be evident with some of the reported developments ahead: Take, for example, the Wall Street Journal's characterization of Apple's already-legendary tablet as a "shared media" device with a for-the-whole-household angle. One rumored feature is "sticky notes" in which multiple users of a single tablet can leave each other messages and presumably, recommend content. There are also whispers about how Apple will integrate a payment system for buying bits of media with the tablet.

Already operating the preeminent marketplace for digital content, Apple has already begun dipping a toe into making that media social. Last year, to some people's surprise, it added Twitter and Facebook sharing features to purchasing pages in the iTunes Store--an unusual move for a company that tends to be reticent about incorporating other tech companies' branding into its products. (Just look at what happened with all those cozy deals with Google, which subsequently turned into one of Apple's most challenging rivals on the burgeoning mobile front.)

Facebook executives, particularly when pitching their advertising space to Madison Avenue, love to talk up the power of "trusted referrals" and why consumers are more likely to jump onto a brand's bandwagon (brandwagon?) if they see that their friends like it, too. This is something that media companies may see as crucial as they shift more content from a free, ad-supported model to a la carte or subscription payments. You may be more likely to cough up for a paid news article or video, for example, if you've seen that six of your Facebook friends recommend it. Most of the attention pertaining to Facebook's nascent payment system has focused on how game developers will use it for the sale of virtual goods, but given the chatter about news publications charging for digital access, that'll likely be an emphasis as well.

Social-networking companies, too, stand a chance at boosting growth by becoming media hubs themselves. Both Facebook and Twitter could amass formidable news-aggregation pages by opening up charts of the most-shared links and news stories (Twitter could easily solve this by dropping a small slice of that last $100 million in venture capital it raised to snap up third-party aggregator TweetMeme). And on the e-commerce side, Apple could replicate the success of the music and video charts for the iTunes Store to create its own compendium of the most popular articles, books, and the like.

Then there's Digg, the company that introduced much of the media world to the concept of "social news," but which faces tough challenges from the rise of both Facebook and Twitter as hubs for content sharing. In an interview earlier this month with The Telegraph, founder Kevin Rose said that the site is getting a big overhaul soon.

"You'll see stories being presented to you in a more real-time nature, especially stories that your friends have touched," Rose told the U.K.-based publication. "It will not be just about, but also embracing all the content that your friends touch on other Web sites. It's about being that place where people say, 'I'm going to take a look at Digg because it provides me insight into what's trending, what's popular, what's hot from all over these different places where people exchange information.'"

Though Rose didn't explicitly say so, this is Digg's way of addressing a problem that's plagued the company for some time now. It built up a vocal, loyal, and highly active user base, but one that's easily branded as a bunch of fanboys eager to share news pertaining to all things Steve Jobs and sci-fi. Digg has the "social" component down pat--for a niche audience. What it's missing is the breadth of media, something that it very much needs to fuel further growth.

What a difference a year makes: the hot name in aggregation used to be FriendFeed, created by an ace team of former Googlers that sucked social-networking accounts from across the Web into an elegant array of feeds but which didn't seem to have the specifics of content in mind. Its interface was confusing, bombarding users with feeds of disparate information--Flickr photo albums, Twitter updates, Digg voting histories--that amounted to an information overload. The Silicon Valley early-adopter crowd loved it; mainstream audiences failed to bite. The company was by no means a failure, selling to Facebook last summer for something close to $50 million, its engineers quickly integrated into Facebook's development team.

But these days, the focus isn't on the pipes, so as to speak--it's on what goes through them, and how it's presented, and what that means for the health of the media industry. The buzzworthy new entry into social feed clients is Seesmic Look, a desktop-based Twitter app geared toward the most entry-level of users. It's not a chatty communication tool, but something that Seesmic hopes Twitter-addicted celebrities will use for brand promotion: in essence, a talk show diced into 140-character soundbites. It's Twitter packaged as a form of media. And that's what's in the cross hairs of the social Web right now.