A couple weeks ago, we had a discussion over on the nextNY mailing list about how to use social networking software such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc. What was interesting to me about the conversation was how it broke down generationally – us older folks were struggling to figure out what we were supposed to do with these sites. Charlie O’Donnell suggested that for older people there was nothing to do – we have settled into our lives and already have our social networks in place, whereas younger people use such software to expand their networks while they sort out their social identity. That makes sense, but I think there’s more going on here.
For one thing, when one grows up with a technology, it is part of the environment rather than “technology”. It reminds me of McLuhan’s quote that â€œWe don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.â€ and Douglas Adams’s take on technology adoption. People use media and technology in different ways when they consider it the natural order of things. These “new” social network sites aren’t new to the kids using them; the sites are seen as just another way to talk to one’s friends.
The expertise with which such sites are used by these newcomers is partially a result of being embedded in a community. They aren’t reading help files to figure out what to do. They see what their friends are doing, copy and adapt what they find useful, and learn as they go. The site does not stand alone, but instead demonstrates the social life of information. Those of us who are the first of our communities to explore a site have a more difficult time, as we have to figure out usage patterns from scratch.
The churn of technology also contributes to lowered adoption rates by older people. I’ve been on the Internet since 1990 and have spent time with email, mailing lists, MUDs, instant messaging, discussion boards, web pages, Usenet, blogs, RSS, LiveJournal, etc. Several of these technologies have been superceded by later ones. Having been through several such cycles, I’m less likely to invest in learning a new technology until it has moved past the hype stage into mainstream adoption. Somebody new to the scene is more likely to believe that the new thing is world-changing.
Part of the churn of technology is because each new generation seeks to differentiate itself from the one before. Baby Boomers adopted rock music and television and created the beginnings of the car culture with their efforts to escape their parents’ influence. My generation thrilled at the ability to escape from our hometowns by talking to people around the world via the Internet. Now kids see their parents using email, so they think email is for old people and use texting or Facebook messaging instead.
Learning a new technology can often mean giving up an old one. Because of the time I have spent mastering various media technologies and integrating them into my life, I am loath to give them up even if better technologies now exist. For instance, I resisted buying a DVR for years because I was convinced my VCR was good enough. Meanwhile, people entering this environment can choose the technologies that best fit their lives without considering sunk costs, much like developing countries are now skipping wired telephone networks and going straight to cell phones.
As Charlie observed, those of us with established careers and social networks have less time and desire to experiment with new technologies and integrate them into our lives. So we reject them in favor of technologies with which we are already comfortable. Charlie describes how bloggers are rejecting Facebook after using it in a unrealistic way based on their experience with blogging. They didn’t take the time to go “native”; without a community in which to observe how others were using the technology, they failed to find a use for it.
The mix of technology and community is an intoxicating one for me – I’ve been fascinated by how virtual communities form and use technology since I first logged into a MUD in 1990. With more experience, I realized that the technology matters less than the community in the process of technology adoption. A technology without an associated community withers away. A technology that can be adapted to serve communities (like Twitter) will thrive.
We’re in a time of great innovation in social software. The technology to create social networking applications is available to anyone, either through building it with open source software on a hosted server, or through sites like Ning. While I’m no longer one of the early adopters, I am watching them closely to see how new technologies are being used by those communities, so that I can adopt them later myself.
P.S. Having said all that, I still don’t “get” Facebook. Anybody want to give me a tour of how they use it?