Is it really 2012 already? No, not quite, but we’re almost there. And with only two more sleeps to go ’til the new year, we thought we’d take a retrospective look at social media this past year. After all, rather a lot happened.

We actually kicked off 2011 with an apt piece on 8 actionable items for social media this year, including things like Twitter monetizing and the need for Google to wake up to the social revolution. TNW contributor, Niall Harbison said at the time:

“Google needs to wake up and see that the whole social world is engulfing them from every angle and that their core product of search is under some serious threat from the likes of Facebook. We know that Google is working on its new social product (Google me, Google +1 or whatever they are going to call it) and that it will launch in spring but that is seriously delayed and their previous attempts with Buzz and Wave have been so poor that one wonders if they really understand social at all.”

Of course, as we all now know, 2011 was indeed the year that Google came out all-guns-blazing, launching its +1 social feature, and Google+. Early signs indicate that Google+ could cause more than a little disruption in the social sphere, and the uptake of the social network so far has been pretty good, though Facebook’s traction is probably too advanced to fall under any serious threat from it. However, there is room for more than one social network, and if any company is equipped to make a long-term success of it, it’s Google.

2011 saw some big developments across the social space, and here’s some of the key highlights.

Twitter

IMG 0150 520x237 2011: A huge year for social media

As 2010 morphed into 2011, a new Twitter record was set. Japan sent a staggering 6,939 tweets-per-second as midnight chimed at the start of the new year, which was nearly double the previous record of 3,283 tweets-per-second set during Japan’s victory against Denmark at the 2010 soccer World Cup. This actually led us to question exactly why Twitter is outgunning Facebook in Japan.

The record didn’t stand for too long though, as it was broken again during the women’s soccer World Cup final. How many? 7,196 per second. And the UK set a Twitter traffic record of its very own in May, with 1 in every 200 website visits landing on Twitter.com.

The Super Bowl generated an astounding 4.5bn tweets in February, and by the following month it was announced that Twitter users were sending 1 billion tweets per week around the world. By September, Twitter’ had drawn in 100m active users each day.

Although 2011 was a strong year for Twitter, Yahoo Research revealed that 50% of all tweets come from only 20,000 users, though it did finally manage to gain trademark ownership of the word ‘tweet’, which was nice.

The issue of influence arrived early on 2011′s social media radar, with a single Ashton Kutcher tweeted link garnering the creator’s video 13,000 hits, which isn’t bad for what was essentially 5 seconds of Ashton’s time. But I guess that’s the power of having 6m followers.

There were more than a few quirky Twitter tidbits throughout the year too. For example, there was the Malaysian man who was ordered to tweet an apology 100 times, after claiming on Twitter that one of his friends, who was pregnant, had been maltreated by her employer.

Then there was the former history student who started live-tweeting World War 2, an initiative he plans to run for the full duration of the war. Of course, there was also the Twitter-powered Space Invaders game too which was, well, interesting.

Twitter has always been synonymous with celebrity, and when President Obama started tweeting personally this year, it served to cement the microblogging tool as the Web’s preeminent platform for public pontification.

The Next Web also managed to catch up with Twitter’s Ryan Sarver in its new UK office to talk about its healthy and viable billion-dollar ecosystem. Sarver said:

“Between January and June this year, the developer ecosystem saw half-a-billion dollar investment coming in. But what was really cool over that same period, there was over a billion dollars worth of exits.”

So that means third-party app developers that use Twitter’s data have been raking it in this year. For starters, Salesforce acquired Radian6 for $276 million in cash and $50 million in stock, whilst Koxmix was later acquired by Walmart for what was rumored to be over $300m. “These aren’t the only metrics we track”, added Ryan. “But it is indicative of a healthy and viable ecosystem”.

Speaking of the ecosystem, earlier this year you may remember that Twitter fell under a fair bit of criticism for the way it was trying to curb third-party client apps. Sarver said at the time that developers shouldn’t create new apps “that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience.”

TweetDeck was a colossal client in terms of users, so it made sense for Twitter to acquire it for $40m rather than let it fall into the grasp of another big company. But Twitter made it clear that it wanted to create a more consistent core experience across the Twitter-sphere, which meant the myriad of Twitter apps that “looked kind of like Twitter, and did sort of the same thing” weren’t going to be encouraged. “While I think we could’ve improved the way we messaged it, the message itself is still a credible and important one to give”, said Ryan.

Twitter also got sucked into the social networking row that exploded in the wake of the London riots, and Twitter confirmed it was meeting with the UK government about this very issue (see ‘London riots’ further down).

To cap off a busy year for Twitter, it unveiled a new design and layout in early December, as it sets up to launch an assault on the global masses in 2012 and prepares to unify 7bn people.

Facebook

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Facebook’s revenue in the first half of 2011 was reported to be $1.6bn, which sounds like a lot until you consider how many people actually use the service.

Whilst we predicted that Facebook might hit 1bn users in 2011, it looks like it may have fallen a little short of this figure. At the f8 conference on September 22, Facebook revealed it had 800m active users, but perhaps more interesting is that it announced at one point 500m people used the service in a single day at its peak.

A rough calculation would indicate that Facebook probably has somewhere in the region of 900m users now – give or take – and you can bet your bootlaces that the next major milestone announced will be the magic billion figure, which we expect to happen in the first couple of months in 2012. With those sorts of numbers, a paltry $1.6bn turnover doesn’t really seem all that much.

Probably one of the biggest developments at Facebook Towers in 2011 was the new Timeline feature, announced at its f8 conference, and we covered why this new feature essentially changes everything in the social landscape.

Elsewhere, fears that Facebook was about to be sold to the Saudi king proved unfounded, and then its much mooted $100bn IPO was also a big talking point throughout the year, now expected to take place some time in early 2012.

Facebook announced that it was to combat child porn by using Microsoft’s PhotoDNA tool, which was a good PR move, but it shot itself in the foot when an anti-Google stunt backfired. It seems the battle for digital supremacy took a rather ugly turn, as Facebook hired a PR agency on the sly…specifically to plant negative stories about Google. Tut tut, Zuck.

Earlier in the year we reported that Facebook was driving more traffic to news websites than any other source, but the social network took a big step towards becoming a self-contained subsection of the World Wide Web when it announced it would be supporting newspaper apps – this meant users could read news without leaving Facebook. Indeed, the Guardian newspaper alone notched up 4m installs in just two months.

Rumors first started flying about a Facebook/Spotify partnership back in May, and this deep integration finally materialized at the f8 conference. Though Spotify came in for a bit of flak after it was revealed that new subscribers would be required to have a Facebook account to access the music-streaming service.

2011 was a huge year for Facebook in many other respects too. It introduced real-time analytics for social plugins, edged past Yahoo as the number one seller of display ads, set the wheels in motion for its first non-US servers, and ASOS became the world’s first fully integrated Facebook Store, with users able to complete online purchases without leaving the social network.

Facebook also lost its longest service employee – other than Mark Zuckerberg, of course – this year, news that followed hot on the heels of our feature examining what it’s like to work at Facebook.

On that note, last year actually saw a fair amount of Facebook employees leaving. Was it because the company was starting to stagnate? No, it seems that the employees in question had joined before Facebook gave staff ‘restricted’ stock – which means they were all able to sell their stock on secondary markets and become very rich.

We also ran a plethora of Facebook-centric posts this year, giving tips, tricks and advice on how to get the most out of the social network. For starters, there was the 10 Facebook campaigns to inspire your business piece, with the likes of Corona’s epic campaign helping to highlight how the social platform can be used as a marketing tool. And then there was how journalists could use Facebook as a news-reporting tool too.

Facebook is never normally too far away from controversy in the data-privacy arena and, well, 2011 was no different. Whilst the social network did updated its privacy controls this year, Facebook VP for the EMEA region, Joanna Shields, did receive a minor grilling on the subject at the inaugural Wired event in October, which she talked openly about.

Lastly, it seems that stagnation is the last thing being served up at Facebook, as we covered in our Is Facebook innovative? feature from a few weeks back. The answer we arrived at with regards to that question was a resounding ‘you bet’, but the bigger question we raised was will Facebook remain innovative in a post-IPO world? The answer to that question was slightly less resounding, but if Facebook can retain its DNA and not succumb to external pressures, it certainly CAN remain innovative. Only time will tell though.

Google

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As we noted at the beginning of this post, Google was heavily involved in the social space in 2011, having rolled out social search globally, before unfurling the +1 button across the Web, giving Google a more Facebook-esque feel. But the biggie was still to come.

Google launched its much anticipated Facebook rival Google+ in June, which led to much debate in the weeks and months that followed. Indeed, we argued that whilst it would have one eye on bringing Facebook down a peg or two, it was LinkedIn that should perhaps be more scared in the long term. Google+ eventually launched to everyone in September, having been invite-only for three months.

Google+ reached 10m users in 16 days from its initial launch, but Google said that finding a way to monetize the social network wasn’t a priority.

Also, the main UK political party leaders all signed up for a Google+ account shortly after it launched. But it was only a matter of time before the celeb contingent started using it, with Britney Speakers ending up in 1 million circles, and the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu hanging out on it too. Google can be pretty satisfied with the start that Google+ made this year.

Oh, and if you don’t believe us about the Dalai Lama/Desmond Tutu bit, check the video for yourself here:

Elsewhere, both Barack Obama and David Cameron were interviewed on the Google-owned YouTube, which announced 1 trillion playbacks this year.

London riots

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Technology was thrust into the limelight as it emerged that social networking played a key role in organizing the pillaging that plagued London and other UK cities in August 2011. Arrests were made in the likes of Wigan and Glasgow after a handful of Facebook users were accused of inciting riots on the social network, whilst at least one teen girl was charged for similar actions using BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).

We reported that RIM was engaging with police over the role that BBM played in the riots, and the UK government was to seek a meeting with key representatives from Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry-makers Research in Motion (RIM) to discuss whether it would be right to shut down social networks at certain times. We argued that the government wouldn’t curb social media in times of crisis, and the social networks all later responded to confirm that the meeting was more to do with how they could help the authorities use social media more effectively.

Indeed, UK authorities were actually using social media to fight crime too, with one police force using Flickr to help identify riot suspects, and we later pondered whether Facebook could be effectively used to report crimes.

Troubles in the Middle East

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Political crisis in Tunisia was being broadcast across the Twittersphere in early 2011, and we asked how it was possible to make sense of the deluge of data emanating from Twitter. This deluge was only to worsen, as the Middle East was plunged into chaos, giving birth to the so-called Arab uprisings.

Twitter and Facebook were blocked in Egypt and elsewhere at various points throughout the year, but videos of the Egyptian revolution managed to go viral.

But what role did social media really play in the Middle East? Activist Mohamed El Dahshan, who was in Tahrir during the height of the uprising in Egypt, told our own Courtney Boyd Myers:

“People called it an Internet revolution, but it’s just not true. In fact, half of the people I was with had never used a computer. Living in a country where half the people are illiterate puts a huge limitation on the Internet’s capabilities to organize. In Egypt, Internet penetration is at 29%, but within that 29%, there are over a million Facebook users in Egypt, (out of a population of 84.5 million).”

Indeed, The Next Web’s Middle East Editor, Nancy Messieh produced a pretty comprehensive retrospective on the past year, and said that whilst calling Egypt or Tunisia’s uprisings a ‘Facebook Revolution’ is “incredibly misguided”, she added that there is no denying that social media did play a role in publicizing the story, becoming a key tool for citizen journalists on the ground.

For example, in Egypt, a Facebook page created by Google executive Wael Ghonim as a protest rallying tool, and to get the word out about the cause. Ghonim himself was arrested by Egyptian authorities, after which Google made a public appeal to help locate him. After almost 2 weeks, Ghonim was released by the authorities.

You can read Nancy’s full piece here: 2011 Tech Rewind: This year in the Middle East.

Elsewhere in social media

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Remember MySpace? Well, it cut its workforce by half, and then we pondered who would actually buy MySpace? Oh, and then there’s Bebo – we interviewed the social network’s founder Michael Birch about his new social initiative aimed at the politically switched-on – Jolitics.

We couldn’t possibly ignore LinkedIn either, as it really started to take cues from Facebook and Twitter as it moved to make itself part of the fabric of the World Wide Web. This included new LinkedIn Share buttons, and it also enabled users to sign in to external sites using their LinkedIn credentials. In fact, we even went so far to say that LinkedIn was actively copying Facebook,

But arguably the biggest news from LinkedIn was its IPO, which saw its stock soar. It’s hard to believe it’s almost ten years old, so we presented its long journey to its IPO in this neat little infographic.

There was no shortage of quirky social tidbits this year either. Toyota teamed up with Salesforce for an in-car social-networking service, the Pope discussed the downsides of creating false social media profiles, a UK security company offered to update your Facebook status whilst you’re on holiday, the words Facebook and Twitter were banned from French airwaves, Michael Jackson fans crowdsourced this video, a blogger was sued over a negative restaurant review, Charlie Sheen’s live Ustream rant attracted record viewers, and it was revealed that Asians share more photos than Europeans. Startling.

From a stat perspective, there were more than a few milestones reached this year too. Reddit reached 1 billion monthly page views, Stumbleupon stumbled to a billion stumbles, Tumblr tumbled to 10 billion tumbles, Flickr hit 6bn photos, Badoo doubled up in almost every metric, and Foursquare hit 1 billion check-ins – with the Super Bowl attracting 200,000 in itself.

We interviewed Instagram founder Kevin Systrom back in September. Then at LeWeb ’11 in December, he announced that the photo-sharing app had surpassed 15m users, whilst noting that an Android app was currently being worked on. Instagram also opened its API to developers this year, an act that was followed shortly after by Posterous. Oh, and Delicious relaunched too, going more social in the process.

We also introduced you to fictional character Jack, and looked at a day in the life of a true social media geek, whilst Lady GaGa continued her soaring social media success.

It has been an incredible year for social media. Social is everywhere – it’s on our TV screens and computer monitors, and it’s in our pockets. The rise of the digital monopolies has seen the likes of Facebook and Google dominate the World Wide Web. Roll on 2012…

You can find all our 2011 Tech Rewind posts here.