the evenings out here - Thoughts, rants and musings about absolutely everything except photography. Or cats.

Social Tools - Noise Generators ?

in General Rants , Friday, September 01, 2006

Rant mode well & truly ON. What people use the web for, how they use it, and how this might evolve in the future are the questions at the core of the ongoing discussion on the real-world relevance of social tools (read "Web 2.0"), as summarised and commented on by Stowe Boyd . There are plenty of erudite arguments for, and a good number against believing that there is a real sea-change. But, as far as I can see, the people engaged in this debate are using the web because they want to use the web. Their whole life is wrapped around the web. Their income depends on it, so, obviously, they hype it up. Their social life depends on it. They blog about the web, and its ramifcations, on their private blogs as well as their professional blogs, and the most exciting thing in the world seems to be attending parties where everybody is pushing their latest Web 2.0 application. I can well understand how fulfilling it can be to be at the epicentre of such a whirlwind, but at the same time, I'm not sure how substantial it really is. Whatever I think of it, is this community likely to provide an unbiased opinion on the future of social applications ? Seems doubtful. When I joined the Fantastic Corporation in 2000 as product manager, my early statement that our applications should be "easy enough for my mother to use" became quite famous - as did speculation on my mother's grasp of technology. Well, she's doing fine with her MacBook, but she'^d have had a bit of a struggle with Fantastic's MediaSurfer. And she'd be well and truly baffled by, say Talk Digger. Perhaps not so much as how to use it, but why use it ? What, and Who are all these social applications for, finally ? Leaving aside MySpace, which clearly works as a website, if not yet as a business, what about all these other things ? Let's look at what is currently "hot" on the Digg, delicious and technorati entry pages: digg.jpg (is it even obvious what Digg does ? Stand back a bit, and put yourself in the shoes of a newcomer.) delicious.jpg technorati.jpg Pretty dull stuff, really, unless you're a geek, and / or your whole life revolves around social tools... Stowe Boyd believes that we have to take the long view, that things will settle down, and that eventually tagging etc etc will be of use to the general public (aka the "crowd", for some reason). Well, that's a commendably optimistic view, but I'm not sure how he expects it to work. For this to happen, the "general public" has to have a growing influence on the tag cloud. This isn't going to happen if every resource which supports social networking is dominated by geeks. If the start page for Digg, etc, is dominated by technical mumbo-jumbo, Star Trek, and juvenilia, then the "crowd" is going to get off the bus right there. And the 2nd law of thermodynamics tells us that that unordered systems become more so. Of course, if the "crowd" ends up being composed 100% of 2.0 bloggers and associated hangers-ons, then, sure, perhaps it all works. Sounds like Douglas Coupland's worst nightmare. I'm extremely dubious about the real-world relevance of social tools, and by this, I mean how they can become universally useful, and function within a business model. The web is about two things: applications, and information. However, what people actually want is quality information. For example, if I want to get information on a travel destination, I want to read reports written by professional writers, who can rate what is important and what isn't, who can take perspectives other than their own, and who have a track record I can verify (yes, this might come in time with tagging and recommendations, if you take an extremely optimistic view). And as for the general public, well do they really want to dig through 200 comments by "anonymous from Oregon" when they just want to know if Portugal has nice beaches ? Unordered, unsorted information is just noise. It has no value. Tools which just come up with a million different ways to present, re-present, summarise and cross-reference noise still end up giving noise, however clever the way they present it might be. Tools which just serve to mutually prop up the egos of a small circle of technology utopians will just collapse in on themselves. Then we have another wonderful piece of nonsense, posted by Jason Calacanis. In "blog or die", he states "You can't compete in the web-development space without a blog any more. Period, end of story". Total rubbish - even in the narrowest sense of "web-development space", no amount of blogging can save a bad product, and good (really good) products have always done pefectly well without blogging. Blogging is not marketing, or advertising. And again, in te "real world" I keep referring to, just about nobody is ever going to read this blog. Blog addicts are more likely to be your competitors than your customers. Sure, engage with them, converse with them, share ideas if you think you should - but don't expect to derive real, financial value from it. The only people who will get business out of this are blog platform vendors and Web 2.0 consultants. Guess who fits into that group... The real challenge, in my opinion, is to work out how to deliver exactly what users want, in near real-time, to any device, in any place, at any time, and let them get back to their real-world lives as fast as possible. Then you have a globally (in every sense of the term) useful web, and a long term business model. Otherwise, the most likely conversation social tools and blogging are going to end up leading to will be along the lines of "would you lkie fries with that ?"