Generations of social software

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 “We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.” 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 Several of these technologies have been superceded by later ones.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?

5 thoughts on “Generations of social software

  1. To be honest, I’m not sure you ‘can’, ‘will’, or even ‘should’ get Facebook. Should your parents download Twitter? I’m not convinced. Basically, Facebook is a tool to communicate with/between late teens/early twenty somethings in or recently graduated from college. I’ve got need to do that: it’s a way to be able to match names to faces for kids in my class, and it’s a way to maintain social networks connected to (but not necessarily comprised of) that social group. It’s got some fringe benefits — a low effort, low bandwidth way to stay in touch with high school friends, for example — but there’s a target user group and you, being mature, old, grown-up ‘n’ all, don’t need to be in it. Leave it to us young whippersnappers, that’s what I’m say. (I’m younger than you by what, a year, right?)

  2. I’m growing more and more convinced that technology adoption has less to do with age and what people are used to and more that different people have different communication needs. High school and college students need to communicate in a different way, and to communicate different things, than someone in their 30s in a job does. IM is better-matched to the needs of student socialization; email is better-matched to the needs of business.

    The costs of learning a new technology are significant, but you’ll pay them if you get a benefit from it. Witness: digital vs analog in audio and video devices.

    I’m not disagreeing with what you’ve said here, by the way; I think it’s insightful. But there’s a floating concept that we’re stuck with whatever tech was popular when we were at some critical age, and that email vs IM is an old-fogey-vs-new-hotness issue, which I think is wrong and want to point out for correction.

    Consider: we used both email and IM when we were undergrads. Now my primary mode of mediated interaction is via personal website discussion forums. Not so different from MySpace or FaceBook. I think the big difference is that those sites are relatively impenetrable because they’re very much about constructing a public identity and a social network. People our age have already done that, so we see all the elements like embedded song players as noise, rather than as important features. It’s not a matter of age in the sense of your historical era of birth that matters, but in the sense of what stage of your life you’re in.

  3. Jofish: If Facebook is a good way for twenty somethings to communicate, then I’m curious whether it can be a good tool for my communities to communicate. So I want to see how it’s used by those twenty somethings and figure if I can map those usage patterns onto my own communities. More on this in another post.

    Beemer: Great comments. I don’t think we’re stuck with the technologies we originally learned. But your comment that “The costs of learning a new technology are significant, but you’ll pay them if you get a benefit from it.” is key. When I was younger, I had no tools in place so my barrier to adoption was basically zero because anything was better than nothing. Now that I have technologies in place to run my life, I have to see significant benefits to the new technology before I am willing to invest in learning it. If I see those benefits, I’ll take the time to learn it, as I did with LiveJournal, RSS, blogs, DVRs, etc.

    Another example: I tried getting a wiki used for documentation at my old company and completely failed, but we’re using wikis extensively at my current job. Unsurprisingly, my current job involves working with young technologists, so getting them to adopt wikis was easier than it was for my old coworkers who were comfortable with Word and Excel. However, if the benefits of a wiki had been clearly demonstrated to my old coworkers, it might have been different.

  4. Maybe. I’m still not 100% sure that it works that way.

    I’ve been thinking about this, and I think I was wrong. I think you should dive in and get to know it.

    So. This is how you do it.

    1) Log onto Facebook.
    2) Add a handful of people as friends, for now by looking at the friends-of your friends.
    3) Change your Status Update. The status update is at the core of Facebook; it’s the quintessential case of how you change something on your account and everyone else sees it on their News Feed.
    4) Log on again in a few hours, or the next day. (Really, to *get* Facebook, you want to log on at least once a day.) *Change your status*, and read through your News Feed to see what everyone else has been doing. If the mood strikes you, then comment on someone’s Wall about their status change. Or on the photos they’ve uploaded or changed their profile pic to.
    5) Repeat 4.

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