Best of the Past: The Online Future

January 26, 2008

[Written March 15, 2006 on a blog called Four Sides]

I recently read Squash‘s article discussing the future of the Internet being based upon an online/offline way of living (full article here). The key example is the Google acquisition of Writely, the online word processor, but a better known example is Google’s Picasa software. Picasa is a photo organizer, and a lot of people are speculating that Google will release a web application that sync’s up with the Picasa photos on your desktop and publishes them on the Internet for all to see. This online/offline speculation is ignoring a few key points, however.

1) User Base

When Yahoo purchased flickr.com, this news article cites flickr’s user base at 775,000. That’s small peanuts compared to Hotmail’s over 100 million users or MySpace.com’s 50-some million users. Is that a failure of marketing, the application, or general interest in stuff like this? I would say it’s the general interest level in these applications. People just don’t need to use services like this, nor have the time to figure things out. Yes, it’s relatively simple to use, but people generally don’t need access to their photo albums on the fly. We carry the essential pictures we do want to share with people casually (family, friends, pets) without requiring access to our entire album. A service like flickr is only useful to the select few who are blogging and a slightly larger group that has the time to browse pictures endlessly.

2) Control Freaks

Admit it, you’re a control freak. We all are. It’s why we have firewalls, want our own computers at home, have so many individual blogs and email address rather than group ones. It’s been an uphill climb for services like Hotmail, MySpace, Yahoo, Google to gain users. But the one thing they all have in common is the majority of users on those sites are using it for non-essentials. Email is just text. Anything really meaningful sent by email, odds are you’ve copied it to your computer or printed it off as a backup. It takes a lot of trust for most people to upload their personal pictures onto the Internet without some concern over who sees them, who can steal them, and how they can be used against them.

When people decide to upload their pictures to flickr, they’re selective about what gets posted. I would speculate that the people who openly share all of their pictures on there have either been using the Internet for a long time and are comfortable in environments like this, or they are professionals seeking future customers for their work. Digital photography has advanced so quickly that people are only now becoming more comfortable with sharing family pics via email, sending photo CDs, and having slide shows on a laptop instead of a photo album. We’re asking a lot of people to make that leap to publishing online and learning how to use services like flickr to their benefit.

3) Adaptibility

As I hinted above, adapting new technology, and new ways in working is a struggle for the majority of people in the world. It is only the small percentage that had early experiences that have been able to delve right into everything the Net has to offer. When people are confronted with something that looks interesting, pick it up and immerse themselves in it, they’ll quickly become familiar with that object (whether real or software or an idea). Without that initial experience of curiousity and ability to spend vast amounts of time with that object, bringing it into your daily habits will take a lot longer.

Think of the process you went through when you first started exploring the Net. Chances are you fell into one of three waves of Net surfers: Dial-Up Age (BBSs, 14.4k was fast, Lynx, Mosaic, newsgroups, irc), NetBubble Age (56k, Netscape, Internet Explorer, Amazon.com, eBay.com, ICQ), Broadband Age (DSL/cable modems, WiFi, Firefox, VOiP, MSN/AIM, blogs, podcasts). The first group required a lot of patience, both with using slow modem speeds, faulty software, busy connections, frequent drops of the modem. It was a real pain, but you learned to multi-task quickly (ie chatting on irc while a webpage loaded). With the second group, the Internet seemed vast. It was like the Pilgrims coming to America- people had already discovered the New World, set up basics for you to take advantage of, and you had some Natives that either helped you or thwarted your explorations. You dropped in to the major sites, started to learn about shopping, and your personal networks were born through interactions on ICQ, newsgroups, emails, and personal webpages at GeoCities. Gateway sites like Yahoo, Excite, and Lycos opened the doors to new worlds to be discovered, like the river-pathways into the West. With Broadband came the rise of a Manifest Destiny of the Internet. If you could think of something, you could easily find it out there, no matter how legal or illegal the content. Networking exploded, the Information Age took full bloom. The tools were there for you to use if you found them, and usually led to even more creative uses of those tools.

Here is a summary of the learning experience, in my opinion:

  1. You have great patience and lots of time to play and explore.
  2. You have a network of helpers showing you the way, that allows you to succeed properly.
  3. You have a strong curiousity about things, and when doors are opened, you look inside.

You may have more than one of these qualities, of course.

The point I’m getting at is the pace of life in our world is speeding up by the minute, so people with the patience to explore are rare. The time people have to gain information from others takes up time and, possibly, money for that knowledge, which means they are as just as rare as the above group. The third group are probably the most populous of the groups, but when our culture is striving towards perfection and efficiency, they won’t have the time required to pick up new technology. There are always exceptions to these rules, but services like Yahoo, MSN, Google have grown in part to one of these three rules coming into play.

To tie everything together, an online/offline model will not be the way of the future because people’s lives are moving too quickly to deal with a kink in their work flow. They are slow to adapt, want to hold onto control, and there isn’t a large enough network of users of most of the online services to benefit everyone. The word isn’t getting out fast enough or wide enough to draw in a larger number of crowds. There’s not a sense of urgency to all of this hype of a lot of Web 2.0 companies. Look at the success of a site like Myspace.com. It has 50+ million users, because everyone between 18-25 kept telling their friends about the site, saying, “They had to be there.” It grew in popularity because one group had the patience to explore and test out features, the next used that group to help them learn the system, then that group passed it onto a third wave to pass the message onto them (“There’s gold in them fields there!”)

The way of the future is to take the online experience and to expand it, make it grow into a living entity. I’ll explain this further in another post, but as a teaser, imagine a tool that allowed you to talk with people on MySpace directly through the Internet, anonymously (dialing profile to profile), like a cellphone, with the capability to download the music from band’s profiles and send text messages.

That’s where I’m dreaming.

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