By Tom Simonite Innovation is our regular column that highlights emerging technological ideas and where they may lead Social networking sites are the culmination of the internet revolution, and there’s not much innovation left to come online. So said Peter Thiel, co-founder of web payments service PayPal, at a discussion at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School on Monday. The event provided a glimpse of where he and other Silicon Valley luminaries think social networks are taking us next. Thiel, one of the first investors in Facebook, suggested the best way to think about the sector’s future is to ask, “Where in the history of social networking are we?” His answer: We’re near the end. “I believe that the computer age culminated in the internet, the internet culminated in social networks, and that we’ll have to look extremely far afield for what is next,” he said. While the web and social networks will continue to exist, true innovation will appear elsewhere, he said. “My view is that the last wave of innovation is social networks, and that after that you have to go back to the science fiction of the 1950s for what’s next.” Others on the panel didn’t go so far. But there was a consensus that the basic way for social networks to work is established, will stay the same and will become ubiquitous, much like email. “Facebook will replace email,” as the dominant method of electronic communication, predicted Ram Shriram, a founding board member of Google. But he went on to predict that social networking will in future be centred on cellphones, not static machines. “Mobile internet is the next major computing cycle,” he said, pointing to the rapid growth of both mobile web use and ownership of internet-capable devices. Reid Hoffman, founder of professional social network LinkedIn, agreed that there is more social-networking history to come. “What’s interesting is that everyone is now present with their real identities and relationships. We’re only just seeing how people lead these things into their lives.” Future innovation will involve using the information people put into them, he predicts. “We’re all generating massive amounts of data that will generate interesting applications,” said Hoffman. Predicting future economic trends, something Google has done using search queries, is one possibility. “You may get recommendations of who you should meet professionally, or which career path you should take.” Twitter co-founder Biz Stone insisted that Twitter “isn’t a social network” – a definition some would question. For him, the interesting thing about the future of social networking is how it will change people and societies. “There’s a kind of alchemy that takes place. When you move on from sharing with just a few friends on email there’s all this information that takes on a whole new value.” Stone thinks Twitter and other sites that make communication more public can genuinely change human behaviour for the better. “When people are more open, they’re more engaged, and they tend to be more empathetic. They become more of a global citizen.” Technology that promotes open communication will help us “move forward as a species”, he said. Read previous Innovation columns: The dizzying ambition of Wolfram Alpha, Can technology persuade us to stop trashing the planet?, Ultimate jukebox is next step in net music, You Facebook, you Tweet, now lifelog, The psychology of Google Wave, Inside Sony’s broadcast lab, Classic computers on the danger list, Are we ready for the Autonomous Age?, Why do users fawn over Twitter’s failings?