Here at BBH Labs we’re big fans of all things social. We’ve spent time evangelising about the power of the social web and speculating about a future dominated by social businesses. We’re inspired and excited by a future where we can take our social graph with us anywhere we go on the web-a future beautifully articulated by Undercurrent’s Mike Arauz.

 “There is no longer any interaction that an individual may have with a brand, company, product, or service that disconnected from all the people they know, and the people that share their interest in that experience.”

So we were more than a little taken aback by the findings of the latest Edelman Trust Barometer that shows we trust our friends and peers as a source of information considerably less than we did two years ago. The decline is particularly marked in the US where just 25% of respondents view friends and peers as very/extremely credible-a decline of 20 percentage points on 2008-but is also reflected in the global data.

It’s an extraordinary finding which calls many of our assumptions into question. The trust consumers place in peer to peer recommendations versus corporations has been one of the primary drivers of the social web, the excitement we feel about the potential for social business and the shift of marketing dollars from above the line to social media.

So has all our excitement been founded on a false set of assumptions? Is this simply an anomaly in the data? Or is social media sowing the seeds of its own demise?

It seems to me that there are a few different factors at play here:

In difficult times, we are drawn to authority: we want there to be expert opinions and definitive answers. There was a strange exhilaration around the collapse of corporate institutions 12 months ago which coupled with the explosion of the social web and the power of the Obama effect created a mood of revolutionary empowerment. Never mind social, people were talking outright socialism. But change has proved slower than expected and economic turmoil has led not to a new world order but to a tougher and leaner version of the old.

As the network expands, connections weaken: It is perhaps inevitable that the bigger our networks get, the less absolute trust we have in the individuals within them. There is, after all, a limit to the number of people we can possibly have meaningful relationships with. Leaving aside for a moment the challenges pay-per-tweet creates in itself, it’s interesting to note that it appears to perform better on smaller networks-to quote Jan Schulz-Hofen of Magpie:

Smaller accounts tend to have a more hands-on approach with their followers and this results in a higher interest in advertised tweets. While the initial reach per post may be smaller, the response is overwhelming when compared to larger or celebrity Twitterers.” So can social media scale or do we need myriad small initiatives?

As social media adopts the behaviours of old media, it loses credibility: We’ve pay per tweet, but the influx of blunt commercial messages into Social Media does seem to be impacting trust. The very forces that drove the social web and the power of peer-to-peer networks- authenticity, independence, touched before on the potential problems of individuality-are challenged by the adoption of old world tactics in a space where there is so much opportunity to deliver genuine utility.  

Genuinely useful and relevant uses of the social graph have been slow to emerge: Some of the developments we’ve collectively been most enthused by seem to have stalled in development. Adoption of Open ID or Facebook Connect by those services where it would be most useful is slow. The compelling vision of having our friends everywhere we want them on the web offering recommendations and advice still feels, for the most part, a long way away.

So if these are some of the challenges we face, what, as lovers of the social web and indeed as marketing professionals should we be doing? I certainly don’t have all the answers and I’d love to know what bigger and smarter brains think. Some starters for ten that occur though are:

Learn how to marry authority and inclusiveness: Too many brands in recent years have taken the undoubted truth that consumers no longer want to be dictated to and concluded that, therefore, consumers no longer want brands to have a point of view. “Marketing” has become a dirty word. But what the data tells us is that oftentimes, and particularly in uncertain times, certainty is compelling. Demonstrating expertise, confidence and authority is not a relic of a dictatorial past. It’s just that today we need to find new and engaging ways of demonstrating that authority, making consumers part of our experiments or our evidence.

Ask yourself if you’re offering anything useful: If you’re not offering something genuinely useful or entertaining in the social space, you’re simply polluting the stream. As tempting as it may be to simply get your brand’s name in there a lot, ultimately you’re damaging a medium that could do much more for you but may not be around forever if you don’t think carefully about how you use it. As Elin Sjursen of Made by Many points out, the current state of Facebook marketing may well be digging its own grave.

Find new ways to use the social graph:

As I’ve touched on, genuinely compelling uses of social data remain thin on the ground. So why aren’t we mashing up social data with purchase and location-specific data more? Why can’t I quickly and easily see what my friends are buying, rating and rejecting today? Innovations in social and real-time search are a major step forward but there is so much more we could do with e-commerce and beyond.

Consider the possibilities of smaller, tighter networks:

Smaller, more meaningful networks was one of David Armano’s key predictions for 2010. At the time, it seemed counter-intuitive as I considered the all-conquering power of Facebook and the wisdom of fishing where the fish are. But now, when I consider the potential of scale to dilute influence I begin to wonder if there is a role for smaller, specialist communities of interest or at least for a much more nuanced and selective approach to filtering. As my network expands, I may not want everyone with me everytime but I may want my movie-loving friends to come to Netflix with me, my geek friends to come phone shopping with me, my fashionista friends on Net a Porter with me encouraging me to buy more shoes…

But how else can we prevent social media from self-destructing? Thoughts, comments, inspiration welcome…