I've thought through this and roughly mapped out the phases I've seen for social over the years - note this is a rough draft and others will have very different views of the progression.
Birth - 'I'm here look at me'
At its birth most people and organisations weren't quite sure what social media was for, with many starting out using social to talk about themselves and what they were doing.
Organisations often began engaging with 'look I'm here' messages - staking their claim to coolness through merely having a presence on a social channel, many without a firm strategy detailing why they were on social or how they'd use these platforms to engage with citizens, customers, stakeholders and staff.
This phase was typified by posts detailing that people were getting up, going to bed, having lunch or, from organisations, that their CEO was at such-and-such a place with such-and-such a celebrity.
Childhood - 'I'm learning about...'
As social grew in reach and users in sophistication, people began talking about topics of common interest, sharing news and information in topically based groups. The arrival of hashtags on Twitter to differentiate conversations is an example of one of the key stages on this journey as social media became less about being present and more about sharing meaningful data with relevant people and organisations.
Critical in this stage was the evolution beyond self-interest into sharing, with the reputation of social media users starting to reflect their willingness to share information rather than how they shared their own lives and activities.
Teenager - 'What's up?'
As social took hold in the mainstream, we saw a great deal of confusion - with new and advanced users beginning to collide in terms of the maturity of their use.
One particular trend was for tighter peer groups to form, with more experienced users 'circling the wagons' around their information sharing conversations as new people streamed in screaming 'look at me'.
This phase saw the creation of many expert groups who either excluded or husbanded in new users into their cliche in managed ways.
We also saw the type of information shared on shift to become more personal, with disasters fostering the use of social media for social outcomes - saving lives, directing resources, helping people cope with adverse circumstances as empathy took hold.
Organisations began using social media not just for impersonal information broadcasts but for personalised customer service and for engaging and supporting people in crisis scenarios.
More resources began being directed to social, with organisations encouraged to develop their own voices and live their values, rather than simply share information.
Young adulthood - 'Experimentation'
We're now entering the young adulthood of social media, with a majority of the population both using social and many doing so in innovative and useful ways.
The tools have been around long enough that people are beginning to explore what is possible in more systemic and mature ways.
Organisations now using social in diverse ways - still for information sharing, customer service and crisis management - but also for detecting the 'pulse' of the community, for engaging in the development of products and policies, and for building relationships with non-humans, from NASA spacecraft to coffee machines, in a social aspect to the internet of things.
We're seeing stories told via social channels and new forms of art evolving to encapsulate the global conversation that's now occurring between over a billion people day and night.
What do we have to look forward to?
Hopefully we'll see a long mature adulthood for social media, where individuals and organisations integrate social media fully within their lives, using social channels as we already use telephones as a natural part of the communication fabric of our lives, relationships and interactions.
For organisations and individuals still new to social media, it's worth trying to move quickly through your 'birth' and 'childhood', into the phases where social has the most impact and value.
While you may not be prepared, as yet, to experiment with innovative ways of using social, at least integrate it into your customer service and community engagement frameworks, even moreso than your outbound communications.
Try to develop a single voice for your social presence as an organisation - not an impersonal institution, emotionless and uncaring, nor necessary a 'human' voice representing a single person perspective, but a 'humanised' voice that represents your vision and goals with the passion and energy your staff bring to meeting them.
Social is now the main channel by which many people communicate with each other and with organisations, how they find out and share information and where they give and receive support. As an organisation you need to be prepared to be engaged and engaging, to be valuable in order to receive value from social channels. To grow up quickly and make mature use of social media.