It's easy to get wrong-footed by the speed at which social networks are growing. How should marketers or advertisers respond? Are we going to get left behind? Over at The Futures Company blog this week, my colleague Alex Steer has been previewing some new analysis we've done on both the constants in social media, and the points of tension - the 'pivot points', as we've called them.

The constants first: social media is social, and will remain so. We've boiled this down to Four Cs. People use online channels to communicate (stay in touch), to create/curate (originate and pass on content with their stamp of approval), to collaborate (work towards shared objectives), and to consult (give and receive information, advice and opinion). These four activities are the heart of the user value in the online space.

Because social networks are social phenomena, much of the best work on their dynamics has been done by anthropologists and sociologists, not technologists or marketers. Networks are best understood as clusters of shared relationships and interactions between individuals. These interactions can be brief or persistent, light-hearted or serious, and so on. But our social interactions are not lined up like dominoes – I know you, and you know Jim, and he knows Kim, and she knows Tim – but tend to be mutual and interconnected. Whenever several of your friends forward you the same email, you’ve been hit by a network effect.

Although there’s been a tendency to ascribe the success of ideas in networks to the influence of certain highly-connected individuals (the “influencer theory” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point), research by sociologists including Duncan Watts of Yahoo! suggests that there are no specific influencers, and that a trend can start anywhere. Ideas spread because they are worth spreading, and they spread through social networks.

What changes more rapidly is how they choose to interact. This is where the Pivot Points come in - six poits of tension which define online behaviour. These decision points are about scale, privacy, specificity, pervasiveness, utility and worldview, and working with the grain of these tensions can help businesses and brands anticipate the future in a category they cannot predict. They're explored in more detail in posts at The Futures Company's blog on Wednesday and Thursday.