Why Web 2.0 is important, whether you like it or not (aka. why blogging is difficult for us old farts, and how it relates to S+S)

I never thought I'd say this, but I've fallen out of the mainstream - at least in the area of social computing and Internet use.  I look around at all of the technology implementations that are serious parts of the everyday lives of a large portion of the population, and I find myself saying: "I don't get it."

But at least I understand why I don't get it... it's directly related to technology adoption.  According to the theory of diffusion, and in Everett Rogers 1962 book "Diffusion of Innovations," there are five categories/stages of technology adopters:

  • innovators (2.5%)
  • early adopters (13.5%)
  • early majority (34%)
  • late majority (34%)
  • laggards (16%)

This results in a bell curve of overall adoption over time, and an S-Curve for cumulative adoption.  That is, adoption starts slowly, rapidly rises through saturation, and then levels off. 

I, and most of us in the technology field, likely fall into the innovators and early adopters range.  There was a time where we were lower on the adoption S-Curve, and people like me were still a large percentage of computer and internet users.  It's clear that adoption has rapidly moved past that, however, and the other 85% has taken over. 

We're treading near the top of the S-Curve - with even the laggards beginning to join the adoption masses, and this broad adoption has changed the dynamic of computing so much that it can, at times, be difficult for those in the early-adoption group to relate.

My term for this is the "1985 effect."  Statistics from the US Census show that people born after 1985 have a much higher percentage of use than those born earlier.  This difference is not just a slight one - in 2003, computer usage for those born in 1985 was close to 100%, whereas those born only 5-7 years earlier is 75-80%.  20-25% difference is a pretty big deal.

This makes a lot of sense - those born in 1985 entered a world where the PC was fairly ubiquitous - they never experienced a time where computers weren't readily available for all.  This is in contrast to prior generations, who clearly remember the era before computers.  Most of "us" (those born before 1985) can remember when we got our first computer... those born after 1985, can't.  To them, computers were always there.

In addition, the development of self identity and one's social network typically occurs right around adolesence (11-13 years) - and that means that those born in 1985 would begin this development right around 1996-1998.  What's notable about that timeframe?  It's precisely when Internet technology and adoption exploded in the public.  Thus - these adolescents, who have always grown up with computers and who are just starting to build their peer groups, suddenly have a method of social networking that had be unavailable to previous generations.

I draw rough analogies to the adoption of other technologies and their effect on social networking - such as the telephone, which is pretty obvious, and the automobile (i.e., cars).  Cars are an interesting consideration, as it's a bit more difficult to see the direct social impact vs. the telephone, but the parallel to computers and the Internet and social computing is obvious (IMO).

In an historical view of the postwar US (1950s and 1960s), it's very clear that cars became a significant part of the social culture - particularly in the adolescent and teen groups.  Keep in mind that this wasn't always the case... the American Automobile Association was originally founded in 1902 to change the significant negative perceptions about automobiles and promote their use and development.  But by the 1950s or so, adoption had finally reached the top of the S-Curve, and the to the growing young population, cars were "always there" (as the personal computer and the Internet were "always there" to those born after 1985 - I call this "social ubiquity").

At the same time, the rapid population growth and the rise of suburban sprawl provided challenges to adolescents and teens who were developing their social networks - and the benefit of having an automobile became very apparent.  Cars allowed people to see more friends, build a broader network, and engage in more activities - and thus became a vital part of the developing social culture.  To put it crudely - if you had a car, it was easier to get a date, both from a status standpoint as well as a practical one.  Songs were written about cars, movies about cars were released, drive-in theater and restaurants were built, and automobile manufacturers shifted design and production to appeal to this emotional/social connection.

There was likely a group of early adopters at this time who merely saw cars as vehicles with parts and engines... and their focus was on how to more horsepower get out of their engine because they knew that, scientifically, they could improve things with just a few tweaks.  They didn't even entertain the idea of the car improving their social status, and, quite frankly, didn't understand what everyone was getting all excited about.  The concept of seeing a movie from inside a car was ridiculous. 

Well, that's how I feel sometimes.  At times I find myself asking "People really do that??" when I learn of new models of internet socialization.  People really log into Twitter and post information about what they're doing at points through the day?  Even the most mundane things?  Sometimes several times a day?  Really?? 

One of my favorite examples is the "Who is sick" site (www.whoissick.org) - where people actually go up and post whatever illness ails them on a particular day (and then it's mapped out nicely so the rest of us can see where not to go this weekend).  I simply cannot comprehend what drives someone to take the time to do this on the Internet... who would even WANT this information.  Of course, I wasn't born after 1985.  I took cursory look at several of the posts, and I don't think it's a coincidence that the majority were placed by people who are 20-25 years old.

However, if you really think about it... how do most people typically greet each other today? 

Answer: Hi Dan!   How are you?   (provided your name is Dan)

Culturally, concern about the health of others is ingrained into us all... my disconnect is merely the new ways that people are choosing to communicate this information.  

This is a common disconnect that I see with a lot of people in my "techology age group"... we have a hard time relating to the class of user that is rapidly becoming the majority in the PC/Internet space.  Our reasons for using the technology are different and our expectations for the technology are different - and that creates a potential problem... those of us who have the job of building systems that impact customers and grow business may be completely out of touch with how to do it right.

Those who "get it" will be able to find much more success with this inevitable communications model.  Social success is clear - kids already measure themselves on the size of their MySpace friends network.  Is it possible that someone who has a "cooler" internet presence might find it easier to get a date?  To folks like me, that used to seem like a laughable juxtaposition...  but I now realize that the chances are this really is the case today.  If you're trying to build a social network today and you're not using these new communications tools, you're just as disadvantaged as those without cars back in the 1950s and 1960s.

Not that I'm trying to build a network for social reasons today (really, I'm not... I still say that a 40-ish year old guy with a Myspace account is a bit creepy).  However there are networks that I need to build in order to be successful - business networks, political networks, etc.  The same mechanisms and tools can and are being used for them as well - and if I, and you, are not taking advantage of them, we will be at a competitive disadvantage.

In addition, those 1985ers are just now entering the wage-earning workforce.  They will be our employees, co-workers, and our consumers.  If we want to be successful with them, we better understand what communications mechanisms are best and what their overall expectations are.

To reiterate: If you still "don't get" all the bluster around social networking and Web 2.0, it's in your best interest, and the best interest of your business to figure it out.  Failing to do so will put you at a disadvantage to your competitors, and doing it correctly will situate you very well in the future. 

To make it easier for myself, and hopefully those of you who are similarly challenged, I put together a list of expectations that seem common to the 1985ers:

Dan Kasun's Rules for appealing to the new masses (Dan Kasun Rules for Web 2.0):

  • Frictionless entry
    • Must be fundamentally simple to access and enroll
  • Appropriate fidelity
    • From simple to high-fidelity.  Don't make it fancier than it should be, but make sure you are leveraging the right technology (like Silverlight) to make the user experience a compelling one
    • “It just works” (i.e., it doesn’t suck - a quote from David Platt's book).  Remember that those who use your solution have a completely different perspective than you.  Build for them, not for you.
  • Easily personalized
    • Everyday person becomes a “developer” - whether they know it or not
  • Provide an Information cycle
    • Allow people to store, retrieve, modify, communicate (share, provide feedback). All of them.  The communicate part is the most challenging... not only do I want to look at my credit card statement online, I want to be able to add posts about each charge and possibly share with my wife.
  • Networked/syndicated
    • Provide the capability to flow in and out to other systems (RSS is a great start, of course)
    • Allow others to provide incremental value as they leverage your work in a broader implementation
  • Collective and democratic
    • Give people power over content.  Implement ratings on everything.  Participate in the broader visibility programs like Digg and Technorati.
  • Rapid change
    • Users don’t just tolerate change, they DEMAND it
  • Zero tolerance for downtime 
    • This is a fun one... particularly with the previous point of rapid change.  A fluid environment that is 24x7?  Yep.  Why should anyone expect less (keep in mind these folks really don't care about technology)

And here's my GOLDEN RULE OF WEB 2.0:  EVERY application is a Web 2.0 application

The above rules should apply to all solutions that you build.  I believe it is wrong to consider it separately, as that will provide an excuse to not focus on the above requirements for not-so-labeled solutions.  The masses have the same expectations of everything they use with respect to computers and the Internet, and they certainly won't give a hoot if it's labeled "Web 2.0" or not.  Neither should we.

Those expectations are very difficult to meet - almost impossible.  Just the "rapid change + 24x7 uptime" seems like a showstopper.  But my mantra has always been "It's SOFTWARE, you can do anything.*" so I have hope (* provided you have enough time and money). 

I still believe in that mantra - but I also realize that no one has endless time and unlimited money.  How are we supposed to build these kinds of solutions now that our users have upped the expectation-ante exponentially in a way that allows us to deliver a positive ROI in a short period of time?

Good software, a solid technology infrastructure, and great architects and developers are the best start, of course.  Microsoft has some excellent technologies here that will get you well on your way - including Windows as a platform, the .NET frameworks, Visual Studio, Expression, SQL Server, BizTalk, Office, MOSS, Silverlight, etc. 

But it won't be enough (ack! A Microsoft guys claiming that they can't do it all!)...

We need more than just software to get the job done - we need comprehensive SERVICES that provide core functionality that is easily accessible and integratable into our solutions.  These SERVICES will do some of the heavy-lifting, obviating the need to develop the infrastructure and the code to provide such functionality.  The SERVICES could be something as horizontal to providing unlimited storage or a blogging engine, to something more vertically specialized, such as providing ratings for credit applications or processing health insurance claims.

The solution to meeting the nearly impossible expectations of the masses in a Web 2.0 world is SOFTWARE + SERVICES (S+S). 

What's nice about this model is that it provides some real opportunity in the industry - those looking to quickly build solutions as well as those looking to provide integrated services.  S+S is flexible enough to work in just about any scenario - and will let businesses decide the model that is most appropriate for their target customes (as opposed to Software as a service, SaaS, which forces a model).

To that end, Microsoft has also been ramping up the SERVICES that we provide to solution developers via Microsoft Windows Live - some of the notable ones include:

  • Silverlight Streaming
  • Windows Live Photos
  • Windows Live Contacts
  • Virtual Earth
  • Windows Live Search
  • Windows Live ID
  • Windows Live Custom Domains
  • Windows Live Messenger
  • Windows Live Spaces
  • Windows Live Writer

In addition, there are many SDKs and tools that make integrating these services fairly simple.  The best place for more information is MSDN, of course: http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/live/default.aspx

In summary:

  • The concepts behind Web 2.0 are merely reflections of the mass expectations now that the personal computer and Internet have reached the level of "social ubiquity." 
  • It is absolutely vital that those of us in the business of providing solutions understand these expectations and build to them, as this population is the growing majority, and it will only get better (or worse, depending on your perspective). 
  • We should consider these expectations in all solutions we build - and recognize that meeting them is a monumental task. 
  • The best plan for success is to leverage the capabilities provided by SOFTWARE as well as the functionality provided by SERVICES (S+S). 

I'll continue to write about S+S here, provided I'm successful at reprogramming my outdated, yet ingrained, social patterns. Of course, if I'm successful I may be deemed so socially attractive that I'll have to fight off the papparazzi, and I'm not sure I need that.  Maybe I'll just buy a vintage 1955 Chrysler 300...