September 22, 2008

Just Wishing for Something to Go Mainstream Won't Make It So

After participating in two panels and seeing others in the three-day Blog World Expo this weekend, there were a number of repeating elements. First, Twitter has recovered from its near-fatal issues and is becoming a must-use tool for more attendees, who are using it for conversation and news discovery. Second, a concern that while we may be using services for microblogging, life streaming, videocasting and news aggregation, that we are the odd ones, and that the services we like are nowhere near the mainstream. But while I continued to hear this chorus of people saying Twitter was either not in the mainstream or just entering it, or declarations that FriendFeed and blog comment engines, like Disqus were not anywhere near the mainstream, I heard very few suggestions on how these products could cross the chasm. It's as if many thought you could, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, click our heels together three times, and find all to be well.

As I mentioned on Sunday afternoon's panel around distributed comments and fragmented conversations, we could very well have been having these same debates about whether other technologies would go mainstream just 10 or 15 years ago. Would AOL ever go mainstream? What about e-mail? Instant messaging? Texting by SMS? GPS? All of these are strong examples of products that may have seemed "out there" on the edge to many at first before becoming part of our every day lives. While Friendster didn't take the world by storm, MySpace did, with Facebook quick to follow. It's possible that the ubiquitous nature we see today with e-mail could be what we see with Twitter, or other similar services, in a few years.

There seems to be a general impatience among the early adopter and fast follower crowds to take the products we all like and use and expand their use to new groups. There's a desire to convert one's friends and colleagues to have the same kind of lust for gadgetry and Web applications as we have, and to adopt them with the same fervor. But we need to understand that with the vast majority of society, change is very hard. Adoption of the unknown is very hard, and it may take multiple incidents of exposure to have something that seems daunting seem comfortable, such that it's accepted and adopted.

On Friday, in my first panel, on micromedia, I was asked what it would take to "take Twitter mainstream", and I only half-jokingly said it would take a scandal involving a well-known celebrity which would lead to the service's exposure in a saturated media environment. Would the market that reads Perez Hilton, People and US Weekly discover Twitter or other similar services if somebody like Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake were using it? What if their tweets were splashed all over E! or Access Hollywood? I bet they would sign up.

In today's panel it was said that the theoretical gap between us "early adopters" and the mainstream isn't really all that much - we just choose to participate in different places. While some of us are Twittering, others are texting. While some of us are blogging, others are Facebooking. While some of us are sharing items and talking on FriendFeed, others are using forums on topics they follow. People have been using technology to form relationships and share news or conversations for years, but the tools to do so are ever-evolving.

I'd venture to say that it's no secret that not every technology we early adopters fall in love with will succeed in the way Google and MySpace have succeeded. But with exceptions made for company viability and competition, there's really no race or timetable to get services to cross the chasm from us on the edge to those later adopters. It takes time. It takes effort, and repeat viewings. Quick demos of products that would have us salivating may simply spark curiosity in those less likely to jump in with two feet.

On Friday, we discussed the dissemination of today's news was to tell 10 who tell 100 who tell 1,000. So it is with these services. If the 1,000 of us continue to tell this same 1,000 about the same items ad infinitum, we will never see growth and adoption outside our little world. The mainstream has proven they can grasp technology like e-mail and IM, texting and Web browsing. With time and ease of use, they can get these newer products as well, but it will take more than us just talking about it to get it done. We need to be patient, and act as guides when that time comes, rather than demanding change overnight and expecting someone else to do the work.