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    This is the personal blog of Simon Kendrick and covers my interests in media, technology and popular culture. All opinions expressed are my own and may not be representative of past or present employers
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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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Scaling games

Scalability is something I’ve been thinking about recently. What works at one level may not work at another.

Foursquare is a prominent example of this. As a social service, it should benefit from network effects. The more people participating, the more information between interconnected nodes of people and places.

Yet the major draw of Foursquare – the gaming aspects around badges and mayorship – is not designed to scale.

There can only be one mayor of a locale. Six months ago, I was Mayor of two Cineworlds, the O2 Academy in Brixton, the Liberty building and The White Horse, among others. But as more people use the service, becoming a Mayor of somewhere becomes more difficult. Rather than swarm at a single venue, people are creating sub-venues (“the table in the corner”) or irrelevant landmarks (“the lamppost off Acacia Avenue”) in order to become Mayor.

To become a Mayor of somewhere, you need a regular routine. Therefore, the place you work is the place you are most likely to be Mayor of. Of course, if more than one Foursquare user works at the same location then Mayorship will switch depending on holidays.

If staff are the most likely to be Mayors, then there is little point offering incentives to Mayors. Why give a free mocha to the Mayor of the Starbucks at Parsons Green when the Mayor is the duty manager who opens up six mornings a week?

Furthermore, the badges are also fading into insignificance. Sponsored and location or chain-specific badges mean there is no objective challenge in collecting them; rewards are based on good fortune or a willingness to participate in marketing activity.

The gaming mechanics need to be fundamentally altered if Foursquare is going to remain relevant (unless of course it contracts back to a size where the system works).

. Collecting additional information on visits (for instance, to distinguish staff and patrons) would be too cumbersome. The most obvious way to change the system is overhauling the Mayoral system. It is not enough to have a single Mayor at a location. Instead, additional levels of visitors – such as councillors and citizens – should be created, with different incentives and rewards. This instantly becomes more scalable.

Scaling games is incredibly problematic. For instance, I’ve played Home Run Battle 3D quite a lot on my phone, yet am not even in the top 1,000 scores. My obscurity means the leaderboard holds no incentive for me to improve.

The joy of games (or at least one of them) is in the competitive edge it brings to social activity. The guys behind Cadbury’s Pocketgame recognise this. Rather than rank performances, they instead focus on the intrinsic joy of competing. The overall aggregation of spots vs stripes offers an additional edge to bragging rights, but is largely arbitrary. The campaign is about playing. I like it.

Moving away from games, the biggest issue, for me at least, in scalability is time. Time is finite, and in a world of ever-increasing choice the need for editors and aggregators is ever greater. The Paradox of Choice is very real, and I’m increasingly reliant on “shortcut” services to find the right balance between effectiveness and efficiency – whether it is Twitter lists enabling me to go straight to the contacts I am closest to, or Expedia allowing me to book flights, transport and hotels at the same time.

In the research world, scalability is the reason why qualitative research only currently accounts for around 10-15% of billings. It is inherently more time and labour intensive. The more people spoken to, the longer the interview process, transcription, editing and analysis time. Quantitative work – particularly online – is scalable. Analysis times may vary, but the set-up of a survey sample of 100 or 10,000 is essentially the same.

Could online qualitative research scale – whether “netnography”, communities or traditional methods transplanted online? Possibly. Siamack Salari has shown with his ethnography mobile application that it is possible to outsource tasks and functions to individual respondents. But the dynamics of a 30 person research community are very different to a 3,000 person community. Even with automatic coding, transcriptions and sentiment analysis (if such a thing is even possible to be accurate), the culture of a large community is such that norms and behaviours get moulded by the “power users”. This may be more natural in some respects, but might make fulfilling the objectives of the research harder. And for this reason, I’m sceptical as to the scalability of online qualitative research.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/monana7/3622111882/

Recommended Reading – 25th July 2010

The second and final group of links from the past month I recommend you click on is below:

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