Facebook is the power hitter in social networking today, and is likely to drive the most activity and a fair share of the innovation in social networking in 2012. But it's not the only company driving things forward.
Here's are five ways social networking is likely to play out in the coming year.
1. Mobile social networking means good news for new social startups
In the U.S., the majority of consumers will soon have smartphones (Neilsen puts the figure at 44% today). Smartphones are about the most important thing to happen to social networking since Harvard sent its acceptance letter to Mark Zuckerberg.
Smartphones know where you are, who your friends are, who's nearby, and soon thanks to NFC, they'll know what you're buying and where. They are the key element of the next, mobile phase is social networking.
Facebook is serious about mobile social networking, but it is not the leader in this space in terms of design or technology. Smaller companies, like Path and Milk (with its first app, Oink) are coming out with new takes on mobile interaction. Square could play in this economy as well. All these services will likely use Facebook's network to put people or businesses or in touch with each other in new ways. More specialized mobile networks (really riders on top of Facebook) will appear next year.
2. Twitter makes big impact with brand marketers
While Twitter's new brand pages won't eat into big advertising or marketing budgets in 2012, the new business-friendly features will make an impact. Twitter is a highly effective platform for spreading brand messages via consumer/fans, and it doesn't take much to create an effective Twitter-based campaign.
While Facebook is still the most important and best social vehicle for marketing, Twitter will matter a lot in 2012 due to its simplicity and effectiveness.
You won't see a Super Bowl ad in 2012 without a Twitter tag on it.
3. Social Networking will tell the tale for the 2012 presidential election
We have seen how social feedback and link-sharing can bomb a presidential campaign: the YouTube and Web reaction to Rick Perry's "Strong" ad. And in 2008 the MoveOn group might have made the critical difference in the Obama campaign.
In 2012, the major political campaigns will be even more dependent on social networks, possibly to the extent that effective social campaigns will be more important than broad-stroke and increasingly expensive TV ads. Certainly, no candidate will be able to succeed without a strong following on each of the major social networks.
4. Google+ remains a critical success but a consumer flop Google+ has a lot of good features, but it needs much more than that to take on Facebook and Twitter. Even Google's tacit promotion of Google+ on its other services and toolbars won't be enough to make it part of the daily diet of social networks for the hundreds of millions of users that Facebook has in its thrall.
Google+ also doesn't have enough muscle to be a big player as a branding tool, compared to Facebook and Twitter.
Even inside Google, we hear, employees don't use it very much.
So, the prediction? Google won't kill Google+, not after its failures with Orkut, Buzz, and Wave. The company will continue to blend Google+ into its other offerings, in particular GMail, Picasa Web, and its search result pages. But few people in the real world, if any, will switch over from Facebook to Google+.
The smart thing for Google? Buy Pinterest. But this is a predictions story, not an advice column.
5. Facebook and Yelp: Social network IPOs do well
For all the bad-mouthing of the Zynga IPO, it's not doing all that badly. As of this writing, it's down 5% from its offering price, and the stock has only be trading since December 16.
In other words, the stock wasn't priced crazy-high nor crazy-low, and if it doesn't drop much further, its middling out-of-the-gate performance will be unlikely to cool the ardor for social network stock offerings in 2012. Facebook and Zynga are two sides of a coin in the social network business. The one's success fortifies the other.
Interest in Facebook stock will be high as the company nears its IPO. The fire for this one will be stoked by the press, by politicians holding it up as an example of American technological and economic prowess, and of course by underwriters. From a financial perspective, it's far too early to tell if the IPO itself will be aptly priced. But Facebook's influence is growing, the company is making a lot of money, and a successful IPO will be good news for every social company out there. The forces are lining up to make sure this IPO is incredibly well-orchestrated, and successful in the right ways: that is, it pops when it goes public, but not too much.