Technology changes quickly, people change more slowly

Manny from Black Books says "I'm a prostitute robot from the future"Last February I asked whether social media could become a mass media. It’s one of the more considered posts on this blog, so if you haven’t yet read it I would recommend it. The general crux was that social media could only become mass when it moved away from super-serving the tech savvy, and more closely identifying with the needs and desired benefits of the average person.

In it, I reference the adoption curve. Adoption curves work extremely well for technology, whereby regular innovations boost capabilities and cut costs. New (and, in retrospect, successful) technologies see the eager niche pay the premium to be first, with the rest following once the benefits have been clearly established and the price has fallen.

But when it comes to behaviours, or services that manifest these, we see much slower shifts. This is because our selves and our needs remain consistent as the world changes around us.

Social media may be new but many of us have the inherent need to be social. Is it mainstream yet?

As of writing, there are 29.9m Facebook users in the UK. Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that its 750m members worldwide are sharing are over 4 billion items each day.

Those are big numbers. While far from universal – and indeed there are suggestions that usage in some areas might be plateauing – it does appear that Facebook is mainstream.

One of the main reasons for this is Facebook’s sheer versatility. It can be something different to each person.

  • It can be a layer across the web or a portal
  • It can be a referral engine or an aggregator
  • It can be an extension of real life or a stand-alone identity
  • It can be a place to chat to friends, to the public or to brands
  • It can be a photo album, a games site, a store, an events manager, a blog etc etc

This has been vital to Facebook’s growth. Rather than enforce a particular type of behaviour, or a particular set of social norms, it has enabled the userbase to transfer their unique preferences within the existing infrastructure. Facebook lets people do what they want, but in a place where network effects can enhance the experience.

It is familiar, but also better. A killer combination.

SIDENOTE: Partially due to the above, I’m reserving judgement on Google+ until it becomes apparent how it will integrate into all of the other Google services. In its current guise, it isn’t more than a shiny new object.

But while mainstream, there is no adoption curve. This has three implications.

  1. It is not inevitable that everyone will use Facebook in future – Technologies change and services evolve, but needs and beliefs are stable. Behaviours, the manifestation of needs that may be facilitated by services, thus change fairly slowly.
  2. Facebook users do not share or use the service in the same way – The Zuckerberg law of sharing ranks up their with his proclamation of a person with multiple personas being dishonest in its idiocy. More people may join Facebook, but the volume, frequency and breadth of their participation will vary massively. Power laws will persist – for instance I wouldn’t be surprised if 80% of those 4bn items shared a day are generated by 20% of the userbase.
  3. Not every type of participation that Facebook facilitates will become widespread – to use the well-worn mother analogy; my mother is on Facebook. She might “like” a photo or even comment on it, but she isn’t going to suddenly become a social media specialist. My mother will not become a blogger, no matter how easy Tumblr makes it. And that is because she has no real need to be one.

New services grow in two stages – displacing old behaviours and activities, and extending them. Social media has succeeded in the first stage, but the second stage is still in progress.

Some activities have been displaced because the benefits of shifting them online are clear. Why show the holiday photos to ten groups of people separately, when you can put them online for everyone to see at once? Why wait until tomorrow to talk to people about what you watched on TV tonight when you can do it immediately after, or even during the programme?

The benefit can also be in simplicity. While my mum may never Tumblr, its simplicity will convince others who possess the need to share or opine to try it out. Ten to fifteen years ago, a prospective blogger would have had to know a programming language and hard-code everything in. I’m sure those Geocities sites took ages.

Extending or creating new behaviours has proven more difficult. For instance, Foursquare (the concept of checking in is still pretty new and alien to most) has struggled to get beyond a niche. Conversely, services like What’s App, which concentrate on displacement, are thriving.

Again, making things simple can help create new behaviours. Going down the 1-9-90 model, it is also far easier to contribute content as well as create it. No longer does one have to master the intricate social norms of a community before venturing a cautious post. Now there are buttons, gestures and such like to get people going. The next step beyond that is automation. I’ll never need to compile a list of my top artists, for example, because last.fm does that for me.

SIDENOTE: Last.fm could be an example of a service that automates too well. The only time I seem to visit the website is to download the plug-in for a new computer.

Overall, given Facebook’s growth, it is fair to say that social media is mainstream. But possessing a social media profile is very different to creating content or exponentially increase the items of one’s life that is being shared. Some social media activities – sharing photos, writing status updates – may be widespread, but the industry still has a long way to go in order to convince the mainstream of the ways in which social services can help fulfil these longstanding needs.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/strangefrontier/5771431767

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