May 05, 2007
Web 2.0 Echochamber: Another Reality
Everytime I'm in a room (and this is often) where the presenter asks the audience 'who's using what?' I'm always amazed by the number of hands that go up. Welcome to my world - the world of early adopters.
I am particularly amused by the show of hands who are Twitter, FaceBook, flickr and MySpace users. While there seems to be a generation shift recently with FaceBook, I wonder how long lived it is and how the user base breaks down geographically.
A few reality checks about things I'm told over and over again in the Silicon Valley echochamber:
Last year, I went to a flickr party and was the oldest person in the room. I attended the event with a 27 year old girlfriend who is a lawyer in the Valley. She dragged along three lawyer friends from LA, all roughly her age and none of them had even heard of flickr.
"Everyone is using Twitter," I'm told. I don't get it and won't. It's not that I'm not open to trying something new - it doesn't solve a problem for me that is need of fixing, nor does it improve my life. Nor do I even think its cool. As for useful? Perhaps at a three or four day conference in a foreign city for all of those three or four days.
The desktop is dead. Hmmmm. I'm not a very early adopter like my industry buds Robert Scoble or Howard Morgan, but I'm most definitely an early adopter. As a small business, I live on the desktop with the exception of search, some online purchases and my blog. Where does email reside? In Outlook, not gmail.
It doesn't mean that I don't have a gmail or yahoo account. I have so many email accounts, I can't even count them all. I actually use 70% of them, but where I am most productive is in a desktop email app where my favorites, files and preferences are stored. Here, turnaround is fast. Email on a web browser doesn't give me speed. I'd love to race anyone who says the web is more efficient or productive.
I'm also told that I 'must' join FaceBook. Why MUST I join FaceBook? How will it make my life more productive or fill a need that is (and this is key) NOT already being met? If I respond with: I'm not really their target audience, people will try to convince me I'm wrong.
Inside this broad early adopter echochamber, its hard to argue with a) not everyone in the world is convinced I need this and b) I really may just not be the target audience. Here's a new reality check for you.
I decided to do a few searches for a handful of remembered friends from high school and college across several countries through Google. Zero. Nothing. "Not possible," I found myself saying as I sat on the couch at 3 in the morning, plugging more and more names into the system.
Then, I moved to Wikipedia. I didn't expect the latter to pull up anyone -- possibly one or two if someone had authored a book or spoke on a national circuit, but I was surprised to come up empty handed.
So, I decided to try a little exercise. I pulled out two high school yearbooks and plugged in close to 400 names. In this search, I used their name + my home town as well as their name alone, using a married name as well if I knew it.
Obviously for women who married and didn't keep their maiden name, I potentially lost 40% of my sample size. Yet not all of them married or took their husband's name. None of my family members were found anywhere on the net except for a cousin who owns a mechanic shop in a small New England town. I tried twenty childhood, high school and college girlfriends using their maiden and married names - nothing. Welcome to another world. Another reality.
After going through the yearbooks from two states (Florida -- pop: 100,000 and upstate New York -- pop: 15-20,000), I came up with the following results:
--a one liner for someone who was a local firefighter, still in same county
--a two liner on someone picked up for drunk driving
--a two liner for someone who was sentenced to six months in a local jail and a fine
--an old friend, who I still keep in touch with, who is now editor of the local newspaper (yeah, they still read them there)
--a one line listing of someone who is now a sales manager at a radio station within 30 miles (I think -- no photo attached)
--LinkedIn - ONE, and he just joined. Also an old friend, who is a financial advisor in Vermont
--One family blog that only has photos, no blog posts (two internal links and it appears to be inactive)
--In the online phone book, I found eight listings
--Two family obituary references
One family blog that really isn't a blog, two bios on a website and one website of a massage therapist. No blogs, no newspaper articles, no mentions, no history or recording of them on the Web.
Sure, its largely a generation thing. Yet, I'm told that 'everyone' in my generation is using these services. And there certainly are older mainstream users on sites like eSnips (a client). While this exercise most certainly proved a point, I didn't expect to find nothing of substance.
In an odd way, it made me feel like a ghost, as if I was standing alone in an online world. Not that I had a desire to reach everyone in the class, but if I had, it would require a lot of effort. No doubt, some of these people will be listed on classmates.com or have a 'hidden blog' or profile somewhere on the Web.
We have no idea how far we have come in LESS than one generation until we do a surreal exercise like this one. A reminder that there are always other realities and choices when we think there is only one.
Update: Todd Sawicki did a follow up blog post about this very issue.
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Boy, I could have written that post: I feel the same way about all these 'must-have' services -- and I can't believe so many seemingly think desktop computers are passe. Why would I want to use Net apps?
I've also done the surprisingly unfruitful search for others on the Web -- not just old acquaintennces, but current friends and family and other locals -- nothing.
Posted by: Paul Worthington | May 6, 2007 9:02:30 AM
During the height of the dot.com boom the prices on Internet stocks were set by a very few traders. Not only were the stocks thinly traded, but typically only very small portions of the company were even made public.
All the racket about this stuff is kind of similar. Lots of discussion among the few people that really use all this stuff. It is important stuff, but not as reality changing as many of us would like to think.
Last time I checked Target still had sales online that was about equal to one of their big box stores. Nobody that I know in my professional life regularly uses myspace or facebook. I stopped bothering with flickr because none of the people I wanted to share my photos with had ever heard of it. And so on...
It's worth remembering sometimes that in the 1970's many people in this country were still on phone party lines despite phones being around for fifty+ years at that point, cell phones took about two decades to get wide penetration, and color tv took 25 years to fully penetrate a market that already was full of not-yet-ready-to-throw-away black and white versions.
Their is a whole lot of activity in the froth but not always a lot going on beneath the surface and it takes time for these kinds of technological and cultural shifts to play out.
Posted by: Jim S | May 6, 2007 11:51:59 AM
It's one thing to be an early adopter to gain a business advantage over your competitor and even then it's a risk. It's a totally different thing to be throwing away money and wasting time with solutions looking for a problem. There has to be a compelling reason for the average person to dive into the latest fad.
For example, I think I was late adopter to cell phones. I could come up with reasonable excuses not to get one. It wasn't until I had to return a page and couldn't find a payphone in a mall that I had a compelling reason to get a cellphone. Even now, though, I rarely use my cellphone.
I run a large informational website and it's decidedly *low* tech. I don't have blogs, forums or any of the cool web technology. Why? Because I go for ease of use and speed of downloads. I don't assume that everyone has the latest browser or a high-speed connection. I aim for a wider audience who might actually be *late* adopters who need encouragement to use the web.
Gmail, Hotmail, YahooMail are interesting. However, I have an email program that automatically downloads my email to my desktop. And it tells me when I have new mail. And I can still check my email from another computer on the web if I have to. And there's nothing wrong with using IMAP technology to get email from multiple desktops. I think it's much cooler to have my own domain. I think that commercial businesses that use those free email accounts are just being cheap and they *look* cheap.
In this world of so many different "cool" technologies, I need a compelling reason to use them. My life is too full already and I barely have time to deal with current technology and I don't have the bank account to buy all the toys I really want.
Case in point: I tend to buy previous generation computers. Why? Because I want to hit the "sweet spot" for technology where I can reach an optimal return on my investment. I just got an unused 3.0 GHz P4 with 1gig of RAM, NVidia 5200 card, and burner for $150. That's fine for even the best games I like to play and I'm not shelling out a lot of money for new technology. I'm still using Win2K on my desktops because there's no compelling reason to use anything newer (until they stop supporting it). I did "overbuy" for LCD monitors because I *did* have a compelling reason to do so (my eyes are getting old and I wanted a fast monitor).
The people who are telling us to adopt the new technology have the job to convince us that we "need" to jump onto the next new thing and they have the heavy task of overcoming our skeptism. MySpace? I have a hard time believing that my own personal website is anything more than an exercise in exhibitionism and a need to get personal attention. I haven't been convinced that most individual MySpace users are anything more than people who need to show off and get attention. And they're too cheap to pay for their own website.
I like to be playing with new technology. I think I'm more tech-saavy than most of my friends. However, I recognize that there are different areas of technology and I don't have the time to be fluent in all of them. Someone else has to provide a convincing and compelling reason why I should join *their* favorite and current fad. What's in it for me? Will it greatly improve my life or are we talking about diminishing returns?
Posted by: Benson Wong | May 8, 2007 1:02:03 AM
Just before posting this I checked Digg. The top story in the All News category was an AppleInsider piece on Roxio software for transcoding video content for the iPod. You don;t have to go any further than that to learn just how hermetic the Web 2.0 navel-gazing is. The Second Life buzz is another good example. I've been monitoring the metrics that Linden Labs generously provides and there are rarely more than 30,000 people logged in to Second Life at any one time, compared to say 4 million watching a really unpopular network TV show. And companies think Second Life marketing is important because...?
Posted by: Steve Wildstrom | May 8, 2007 1:50:28 AM
Check out our catalog of mixed media channels at http://web.splashcast.net/catalog/search.aspx and try a search for "education." You'll see all kinds of folks using web 2.0 tools for a wide variety of real life interests. Only half of it is web 2.0 on web 2.0 - the rest is like economics, astronomy, wine, etc. Good stuff. We promote the service using many of the technologies you express skepticism about, and I'll tell you - when news hits blogs via twitter etc. it ends up getting read about by normal people and then they make cool SplashCast shows. In other words, I disagree :) Good post though!
Posted by: Marshall Kirkpatrick | May 8, 2007 12:02:20 PM
It's surreal to equate popular Web sites with viable businesses. Cultural programming, by definition, is generational, faddish, even cultish. In the 1950s nobody believed that an audience grabbing TV program was a company. Today we seem to.
Posted by: Stuart Gannes | May 8, 2007 5:48:27 PM
In Trendirama we try to join together the better aspect of web 2.0 (community) but still keeping an eye on the important things (good value for writers and readers)
It doesn't really matter what the number before the ".0" is. We as humans are the same as we've always been and revolutionary times are not so revolutiory, actually.
If we can't answer the most important question "what is in it for me?" appropriately, we are doomed to fail, no matter how many fancy graphics and ajax slideshows we use.
Posted by: Javier Marti | May 8, 2007 6:01:06 PM
I was at a conference for New England technology executives and venture capitalists last weekend and was surprised to see that only about 20% of them blogged. I thought the numbers would be much higher.
But then I looked at the makeup of the audience: over-40 men. It struck me that these people are the least likely to embrace new technology, particularly since they've gotten along just fine without it until now.
Technology adoption often proceeds in generational steps. Think of it: a generation ago, the IBM PC had just been introduced. Nothing that we use PCs for today was in use at that time, except perhaps word processing. The Web is barely 10 years old as a consumer phenomenon, yet there are huge generational differences in how people use it. People under 20 have completely different expectations of computers than people over 30.
You're not out of it for tuning into these expectations. You're just one of the few people of your age group who understands where the world is going. What's wrong with getting there first? :-)
Posted by: Paul Gillin | May 8, 2007 6:26:26 PM
Hmm...some really interesting points. I've been thinking about these things lately, especially as I attend communications conferences. You hear the same people over and over again, talking about each other. It strikes me as just another clique (like those back in high school)...but a clique that's gone digital. Check out blog rolls and you start to see the connections.
But...having said this...many of my friends have been urging me to join FaceBook. Years ago I had the same peer pressue to get on Friendster, and then MySpace. I thought: NO! In the end (last week), I conceded....and to my surprise, have really been enjoying it. I've met up with a lot of old friends I haven't spoken to in years. It's a kick.
Posted by: Sandra D. Fransen | May 9, 2007 4:41:19 PM
Very interesting article. I find myself asking the same questions and wonder about the same 'must have tried this'. I am 31, working in the space but then again I wouldn't call myself and early adopter (I know it's strange). Example: I got myself a mobile phone in 2006, simply because I don't like the idea of being available all the time. I signed up with myspace in 2007 because I thought it's about time to check it out (not really impressed since the usability is rather akward). The same goes for Twitter (Arrington uses it, so I thought I check it out... still don't know what it does or what it's good for - how 'ancient' am I?) and some others. I guess I like services that are either fun (YouTube) or have a real value proposition (eBay, Amazon) but other than that I am probably not the best person to ask about 'what's cool or trendy'.
Reading the replies here it almost makes you wonder who those people are that make myspace, twitter and facebook so popular. I guess its not us...
Ole, the Pageflakes guy
Posted by: Ole Brandenburg | May 9, 2007 5:59:30 PM
I am also an early adopter who refuses to adopt twitter/facebook. i dont want it if i dont have a use for it. twitter, to me, is pointless as a personal tool but has potential in the business world. and when people say i need myspace/facebook i say, why? i have my own website...
It's a great perspective to step back out of the online world and realize how many people you connect with personally everyday (friends, family, etc) that have no online presence... For me it's a vast majority - probably 80%...
Posted by: Andy Brudtkuhl | May 10, 2007 2:22:38 PM
Hi renee - great stuff.
As a definite "quasi very early" adopter (we should chart these definitions) with a reality driven perspective, I think one of the points missing from the argument is motivation. A person who tells you you MUST be on X is demonstrating that this is more about them - their age, their ego and what they are getting out of it than need. And that can be OK. Depends on the delivery (deliverer) and the message.
Those who are experience new tools for the first time are often SO enthusiastic that they are evangelizing. They can be getting their egos fed in new ways (I am SO cool I am in the in-crowd) or getting to be creative in new exciting ways (I can express myself publicly). It has been my experience that true very early adopters are the LAST people to tell you, you must be on something. They just do it. Actually, I often get people sheepishly apologizing to me that they don't have a blog - I say "maybe you don't need one". They are often shocked.
I have a friend of the family who writes an amazing newsletter via email once a week. It would migrate beautifully to a blog - but you know what, this medium works for him and his audience of retirees and why should he learn something new when it is currently serving his purposes just fine.
Different strokes for different folks, ages, types. It is not all or nothing.
But that's just MY .02..;)
Posted by: deb schultz | May 10, 2007 8:46:41 PM
truly thoughtful stuff. maybe there is hope for people who think about one thing for longer than a nanosecond after all. Is the ADHD society we live in more productive or just more frenetic? hmmm
Posted by: Fred Vogelstein | May 15, 2007 10:24:41 PM