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Staying in touch is easier than ever<br>;New tools have become a big part of daily life

If you still haven't embraced the whole idea of social media -- Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare -- here's a tip for you: You may want to start.

It's not going away.

"There's no going back," said Rebecca A. Bernstein, a web strategist who lectures on social media. "It is an undeniable part of our lives already."

"Social media is here to stay," added Mark A. Greenfield, an expert on the use and development of social media. "And it's going to have a huge impact on, not just communication, but the way business operates."

Experts in the field of social media -- that is, any type of online media that allows you to interact with others -- offer a few predictions into where this evolution is headed in 2011 and the years beyond.

> Going mobile

For one, Greenfield said, watch for social media to become increasingly mobile as keeping in touch on the go has never been easier, thanks to 2 4/7 connection to the Internet and the exponential growth of mobile phones and devices.

The U.S., he said, still lags behind other countries when it comes to favoring mobile devices over laptops for checking everything from Facebook to finances, but it seems Americans may have finally reached that tipping point.

As a result, Greenfield added, look for the rise in location-based apps, like Foursquare and Gowalla, which broadcast your location to friends and help you find new places to visit.

"The demographics in social media equals everybody now," said Bernstein, a web strategist with the University at Buffalo, "Before it was young kids or geeks. Now, it's everyone. Whether you're old or young, you're out there."

Social media is changing the way we do business, Bernstein said, and if companies haven't already started using it as a platform for marketing, they will. These days, she said, it's almost as important as a company web page.

But while businesses and brands are making their precense known on sites, like Facebook, they're still struggling with how to use them successfully, she added.

> The sweet spot

Smart companies realize that social media is about sharing and providing information, Bernstein said, while the marketing of the business is actually an outgrowth of that. The trick, she said, is finding that "sweet spot" -- marketing the business by sharing information their users are interested in.

"A lot of people look at Twitter as just a fad, just what people are talking about, what they had for lunch," said Greenfield, UB's director of web services. "They don't realize the power."

What's also changing, Greenfield said, is the whole idea of the web and social media being separate.

The focus, for example, has been to go to stand-alone social networking sites, with businesses using those to connect to customers.

But there's a growing feeling that you shouldn't have to go to dedicated networking sites. Instead, social networking should be integrated into all good web sites.

"Down the road," Greenfield said, "it's just going to be converged into one thing."

In that sense, social networks will be like "air," Greenfield said, borrowing a phrase from a social media colleague -- "everywhere and anywhere we want them to be."

> Better connections

And both Bernstein and Greenfield anticipate the demand for more hyper-local news and services.

"I see a future where mobile devices make it possible for people to connect and collaborate in real-time based on location and interest," Greenfield said.

He offered this example:

"Imagine strangers in town for the recent World Junior Hockey Championships being able to connect at a restaurant near HSBC Arena before or after their country's team played to make new friends and share stories around a common interest -- hockey -- in real time," Greenfield said.

"Technically-savvy people are doing this already and I expect it to be mainstream in the near future," he said.

> Just the beginning

New social media tools emerge every day, and people feel overwhelmed because they think they have to know everything, Bernstein said.

But start by just getting familiar with a couple things, Bernstein said.

"The wonderful thing about the web and social media is it allows the common man to get their word out there. It allows people to stay in touch with each other and it allows business to build new and different kind of relationships with their customers," Bernstein said. "It's exciting."

"We will look back at this as being just as revolutionary as when the web came around in the early 1990s," Greenfield said.