Early adopters fail to answer the First Use question for Social Media

I read a few posts that weren’t related but did talk about a pattern I’ve seen before. First of all there is this excellent post by Zephoria on Facebook. She talks about the way Facebook “expects” people to use their service versus the way people might be using it. A quote from her post, reflecting an e-mail that a Facebook user received when his account was shut down:

Please note that Facebook accounts are meant for authentic usage only. This means that we expect accounts to reflect mainly “real-world” contacts (i.e. your family, schoolmates, co-workers, etc.), rather than mainly “internet-only” contacts. As stated on our home page, Facebook is a social utility that connects you with the people around you, not a “social networking site”. It is meant to help reinforce pre-existing social connections, not build large groups of new ones. If this is in direct contrast to what you expected as legitimate Facebook usage, I apologize for any confusion. This is simply the intention behind the site.

Zephoria continues this example and describes the gap between what a service was meant for and the way it might actually get used:

Nicole is 100% correct that people primarily use Facebook (and MySpace and Friendster) to interact with people they already know. We know this and that’s why we agree that the term “social networking site” is a bit of a red herring. Labeling is simply political and we believed that it’s better to label a genre in a way that best reflects the practices taking place rather than use a term that signals something that is not dominant. (This is particularly important when, as in the case of these sites, the term is used to create cultural misinformation so as to add fire to a moral panic.)

That said, the categorical term that we use to label a particular site or genre of social media does NOT determine practice. The intentions of the designers do NOT determine practice. The demand of the company does NOT determine practice. In science and technology studies (STS), we have a term for this foolish worldview – it’s called “technological determinism” and calling someone a “technological determinist” is an insult. Unfortunately, far too often, companies take on this reductionist role and expect that the technology will determine practice.

Steven Hodson has written a lot of posts in which he discusses the way early adopters tend to view technology and the gap between them and mainstream consumers when it comes down to the usability and usefulness of a new web 2.0 technology service. I think this post says it best, and I’m quoting a small dialogue I feel describes this gap so well. It’s Steven getting a haircut and talking to his hairdresser:

“So what do you do for a living?”

“Uhm .. I am a technology blogger”

Blank stare …….

“I write about technology on the Internet”

“Oh so then you would know all about Facebook then”

“Yup, but I don’t use it”

“You don’t use it? Why? It’s lots of fun”

“Too many security issues for my liking making not worth using.”

“Security issues? what do you mean…..”

Then there is an excellent piece by Mark Rizzn Hopkins at Mashable in which he talks about the latest in Social Media wonderland,  called “Wisdom of the Crowds”. It seems to be the new buzz word in Social Media, even thought the author of the book, James Surowiecki, shows that crowd wisdom does not always work well, as Mark points out when talking about Digg and it’s possible relation to crowd wisdom:

This is one example of the type of situations where Surowiecki says the Wisdom of Crowds will fail. His list of problematic structures include where the crowd is too homogeneous, too centralized, too divided, too imitative, or too emotional.

I Like Mark’s stance on this. It touches what I feel as a sort of universal truth about any new technology or understanding. It can have great effect, but is hardly ever a solution to all of the worlds problems.

A quote:

Crowd wisdom has this sort of philosophical feel that “cloud computing” does. It’s a catch all term that broadly describes the bulk of what’s produced in the Web 2.0/social media world. I think the best thing that can be done to solve the problem is for a more thorough understanding of crowd wisdom to be kept in mind by those who design these systems in the first place (that is, if they are designing these systems to be anything more than white-noise generators).

And that is exactly where early adopters and breaking news blogging sites tend to miss a turn. They seem to work with an unspoken underlying assumption that if they like the new cool startup thingie, everyone will like it.  As a result it’s impossible for them to imagine what the technology would mean to the users it was intended for. I find this behavior difficult to understand. I am a (reasonably) early adopter of technology and I can be passionate about it. But the most important question technology needs to answer for me is “what does it do for me”? I call that the First Use experience. It’s dead simple to understand, but incredibly difficult to get right.

First use is about creating the best possible user experience when you deploy your service for the first time amongst your target users. First use is about answering the question,”Is a user willing to put in the effort to learn about this new technology and incorporate it in his current habits”?  The answer in any case is that willingness is related to either solving a problem or creating another type of value for the user. If this isn’t obvious from the start, then the user is not committed to put in the effort of integrating this technology into his life.

I feel that our current Hallelujah over web 2.0 social media technology fails to address the First Use question. Yes it is cool to be able to participate in discussions with potentially thousands of people on the web. Sure it’s great to track these discussions, to be able to find new stuff via aggregators, to be able to friend tons of interesting people. To be part of an never ending global discussion. But what does it all boil down to in the end? What is the value of that for your daily life, especially when you are not part if the in-crowd of Silicon Valley or the tech industry?

The answer is that we really don’t know. And if we don’t know, how do you think any normal Internet user will possibly understand it? Social media is here to stay, I’m sure. But it’s impact is highly overrated right now. A friend of mine, Neil Vineberg talks about this same topic over here. He questions the value of social media and notes that his passions tend to reside in offline activities. I do that too, it’s the main reason that I tend to see my social media activites as play. It’s fun to do, but there are more important things in life.

Social Media is just a tool, a fun playground, cool technology. But it doesn’t have all that much impact on the lives of ordinary people. It doesn’t bring a clear and tangible value yet to make people want to integrate it into their current habits. That doesn’t mean that Social media will not become more important for us. It just means that the early adopter and tech blogging community needs to calm down a bit and question the value for the user when new services appear. If we all focus on answering that First Use question, startups will be forced to build user-centric services. Services that evolve around the actual needs of a user. Now that would be refreshing, don’t you think?

That is what I tend to do on this blog. I try to remember First Use and question new technology in that perspective. It’s the Zen of my blogging. And I hope you’ll appreciate it 😉


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6 Responses to Early adopters fail to answer the First Use question for Social Media

  1. Benedikt says:

    Alexander, you write “Social Media is just a tool, a fun playground, cool technology. But it doesn’t have all that much impact on the lives of ordinary people.” Although I agree with the general observation, I’d put this in a different context. Isn’t this the case with all advanced / elitist cultural or economic sectors? Can’t the same (low impact on the lives of ordinary people) be said about things like: astronomical theories, Joyce’s Ulysses, SAP or the LHC? All those things would not pass the First Use Question but that doesn’t pose a problem.

  2. I think you’re right, to a certain extent, benedikt. The difference is, though, that Joyce, LHC and the other things you mention aren’t intended eventually or currently for mainstream usage (and I shudder to think of the mere thought of my neighbor using the LHC unsupervised).

  3. Benedikt, that’s a good question. The thing with social media (and often a lot of web 2.0 startups) is that the early adopter crowd is not asking the tough question of First Use. Yet at the same time they often tend to write about new technology as if it is the best thing ever. Simple example, Half of the Internet population probably knows about Google Search. Every new startup or technology that is innovating in the area of search is now convicted as being a “Google killer”. Sensational, but obviously unrealistic.
    With respect to web technology I think we can safely assume that a lot of “ordinary” users are now on the web. These people have found ways to integrate that experience into their lives. They are the target groups for services like Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed, or any other social media service. But just because these services aim at that market doesn’t mean they can be succesful there. That’s where the first use questions are important.
    Not everyone knows or cares about astronomical theories, but when it comes to services that have impact on normal things in life like communication, sharing, connecting, meeting with friends and family, everyone is an expert 😉

  4. Pingback: The day Social Media jumped the shark ? | Strategist.org.uk

  5. Pingback: Sometimes You Need To Be Resistant To Change - Regular Geek

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