Nick Carr has a post today asking if the whole social application thing is a phenomenon or a passing fancy. In sum, he argues that it is cyclical and somewhat of a fad. Just because all the geeks on the net are vigorously adding links to Delicious doesn’t mean that anyone in the real world even knows what Delicious is. A few people in a small room can make even a casual act look like a trend.
On the whole, I completely agree with that. After I read Nick’s post I asked a few people in my office if they’d ever heard of Flickr, Netvibes or Delicious. One thought Netvibes was Netflix and none of the others even ventured a guess. These social applications are enjoying the same loud voice in a small room effect that I have written about in the context of blogging.
But there are two areas in which I disagree with Nick.
First, Nick couches the discussion in terms of getting things done and social production. He says social applications are extremely inefficient ways to get things done. In the context of applications designed specifically for productivity, that’s a fair way to look at it. But I don’t think you can ignore the social part of the application. I don’t think the mostly young people who use some of the social applications think in terms of efficiency when it comes to social interaction. Delicious may be about personal productivity, but Flickr and certainly MySpace are more about social interaction and the human need to connect and share.
When it comes to social applications, efficiency doesn’t always matter.
For example, it’s faster to push a speed dial button on your cell phone and talk to a friend about where to meet for dinner than it is to email, IM or SMS him, particularly on a phone or PDA. And even though many thought IM was a fad, it has become an integral part of the communication system for an entire generation. Granted, I never SMS or IM, but just about everyone I know under 30 does it all the time. I can’t put it in scientific terms, but there is something about sending IMs that is appealing to people- notwithstanding its empirical inefficiency.
Secondly, I think you have to distinguish between the social applications designed for computer geeks and those designed for the larger population. Certainly Technorati, Netvine and the like are largely the playground of the smallish tech crowd. Take one stroll through MySpace, however, and you’ll notice right away that the horrendous looking pages designed there are not the work of coders and geeks.
The secret to success for social applications is to achieve penetration into the non-geek population.
When I asked the same group at my office if they’d ever heard of MySpace or YouTube, all had heard of MySpace and most knew about YouTube.
MySpace (which is an evolutionary successor to Geocities), or it’s yet to be hatched evolutionary successor, may very well become a central repository for social resumes and affiliations. YouTube is well on its way to becoming the central archive for videos. The trick will be to figure out a way to grow up with your user base. If MySpace can make it cool for people to keep their MySpace pages after they pass 30, get married and start a family, I can see MySpace becoming a part of the online infrastructure the way eBay and Craigslist have.
It’s not about productivity as much as it’s about longevity.
The challenge for these applications is to stay relevant and fun enough to get an allocation of a user’s leisure time- because they are largely within the leisure sphere and outside of the productivity sphere. On that, Nick and I agree.
Mathew Ingram says that to measure the cultural effect of these social applications, you have to look at them as a group, and not just individually. He also believes that some of the parts of these applications, such as tagging and sharing, will eventually find their way into mainstream applications.
Nick says about social applications, in a quote that many would apply to blogging, “it’s a fun diversion for a while – and then it turns into drudgery.”
It’s drudgery if you have a task to complete and the application doesn’t assist you in completing that task. But social interaction is not always goal driven. The stuff that provides fun and connectivity has a good chance to become a permanent part of online life.
The other stuff may very well be the new pet rock.