09/06/2008

Early adopters and a social media experiment.

ExperimentWith all the talk about early adopters and whether they help or hurt a service I decided to conduct an experiment and try to shed my geek hat for a while and become your average Joe user in order to see what utility I could achieve from my service de choix: FriendFeed.

The aim of the experiment was to sign up a fresh account, completely unrelated to my normal login which would not be subscribed to any of the usual people I converse with on the web. I would then pick some topics of interest outside of the social media sphere and see where the conversation took me.

The obvious concern, as also expressed by others, was whether I would be able to change my mindset and truly behave like a "regular person next door".

Rather than create an entire new identity (having other services that I can import in to FriendFeed) I decided that a good place to start would be to use FriendFeed as a search engine to see what information was being shared about one of my favourite topics: football (that's soccer not American) and, more specifically, Southampton Football Club.

A quick search - after taking a little time to look at the Advanced options - revealed a couple of account sharing some Southampton related items as part of generic football and sport feeds - subscribed. Ten minutes in and everything seemed to be going well. Next up - some searches about psychology and sociology. Again, there were plenty of 'hits' and plenty of items being shared - as there were for a number of other searches - but...

And this is a big but!

Unlike Sir Mix-a-lot I'm afraid I don't like big buts, big buts normally mean something not going to plan and this was certainly the case here.

While there is far more be posted on FriendFeed than social media it is evident that social media seems to be the only thing consistently 'discussed' and talked about in any depth. Maybe it is the nature of the beast but there is a massive usage difference between those who communicate as a way of life (social media mavens) and those who just USE the tools to chat to their friends.

Do a FriendFeed search on any topic you like that's not related to social media - go on, I'll wait. You'll find that the vast majority of items returned (even on searches for current hot topics like Obama) have very few likes or comments. It seems that a lot of other people are using FriendFeed purely as an aggregator rather than a communication tool - in my opinion they are missing out!

The everyday crowd appear to be focused on doing whatever it is they do at the source (Twitter, Flickr, etc.) rather than within the confines of FriendFeed. They may be talking about things just as much as the early adopters but it certainly isn't in the same locations.

Even flicking through the stream on the everyone and you notice the same pattern - only those items that relate to social media have any steady flow of comments.

Why is this?

As I have said in the past, your average user generally wants to perform a particular task and, when it comes to that task having a social context, it makes sense to deal with it then and (more importantly) there. I think that many don't see the need to go beyond the walled garden they are currently inhabiting as it contains their community and that is what is important to any of us. Moving your focus means that - to achieve the required return on investment - you have to take your friends with you and it is not an easy task to achieve.

It is hard enough to get people using a straight social media service in the first place without trying to convince them of the need to gather their threads in to one location when they can be exposed to a never ending river of news; they barely take a sip from their own cups without trying to be shown how to drink from the fire hose.

Early adopters may be useful in working out the kinks of any given service but their usage patterns do not reflect the norm. We cannot, therefore, predict how a service will scale or what the key features may eventually be. Developers may be creating a bassline for us to work from but what happens when that line is set too high for the public at large to reach?

A failure?

On the face of it the experiment could be seen as a failure as there is no way that I can completely switch from one identity to another and get a true insight in to how a non-early adopter will use a service but the apparent patterns have shown a stark contrast in behaviour. If anything it has been a success in highlighting how far the early adopters have advanced in the way they utilise the web and the tools available to them.

A service like FriendFeed will only ever contain what has been explicitly shared by its users and, while this may be enough for such an insular crowd as the social media regulars, simply will not be able to compare with any of the regular search engines that are crawling the web and following link after link. FriendFeed fails as a search engine until you add in the human elements of recommendation and discussion and if these parts of the service are not being used by the world at large then there is little value in the initial share.

More questions

Once we pass a particular point can we ever hope to understand (or remember) how it is for those who don't obsess over every nuance of online interaction? What is the true benefit of early adopters?

Image by L. E. MacDonald.

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Colin Walker Colin Walker colin@colinwalker.blog