What’s Mainstream Technology? Ask Joe Average, The Spouse, Grandma, and Dave Letterman

May 3, 2008

Interesting thought floating around whether these social aggregators like FriendFeed will ever go “mainstream.” Of course, that begs the question – what is “mainstream,” exactly?

I personally have a pretty high bar for “mainstream.” Here’s some of my criteria:

1. The “Joe Average Test”

I have a general pool of “non tech obsessed” friends co-workers and consider the question – has “X” ever come up in casual conversation? If I asked them “have you heard of “X” would they say “yes” or look at me with a blank stare?

2. The “Spousal Approval Test”

My wife is assuredly not into all this social media and technology stuff. She’s really great for bouncing off the pointlessness of any new site / service the digerati are buzzing about. I’m even unsure if this blog has passed this particular test.

3. The “Aged Relative Test”

Grandma, the in-laws, and their ilk are still getting their heads around USB cables and vibrating cell phones. Yet on the occasion some “website” gets through to them via the mainstream media, I’ll get an email about it since I’m “the guy into computers.” If they’ve heard of it and are trying troubleshoot, or ask if it’s worth trying / buying, it’s mainstream.

4. The “David Letterman Top Ten List” Test

David Letterman is only going to make a joke about something the majority of Americans are going to comprehend, otherwise it falls flat. CBS provides a searchable archive of past top ten lists. I also used Google.

Exceedingly Scientific And Ludicrously Important Chart

So here’s my chart of what’s mainstream and what’s not. Actually, there’s a lot of mainstream technology out there, but a lot of stuff that the early adopter might consider “passe” hasn’t yet hit mainstream awareness:

 
Does “Joe Average” Know About It?
Does Spouse Think It’s Worth Checking Out?
Has An Aged Relative Sent Me An Email Link To, Or Asked Me About It?
Mentioned in Dave Letterman’s Top Ten?
Mainstream?
Cellphones
yes
yes
yes

yes

YES
iPod
yes
yes
yes

yes

YES
iPhone
yes
yes
yes

yes

YES
Microsoft
yes
yes
yes

yes

YES
Email
yes
yes
yes

yes

YES
Google Search Engine
yes
yes
yes

yes

YES
Amazon
yes
yes
yes
no
YES
Blogs
yes
yes
yes

yes

YES
YouTube
yes
yes
yes
no
YES
MySpace
yes
no
no

yes

YES
Facebook
yes
no
no

yes

YES
flickr
no
yes
no
no
NO
delicious
no
no
no
no
NO
Digg
no
no
no
no
NO
RSS Feeds
no
no
no
no
NO
Twitter
no
no
no
no
NO
FriendFeed
no
no
no
no
NO

Based on a half-hour of exhaustive research employing the latest tools, I’d say blogs and YouTube are definitely mainstream with three out of four tests passed. MySpace and FaceBook are on the edge with two apiece. The rest of Web 2.0 has a ways to go.

What Mainstream Users Want

  1. Make It So Simple, A Chimp Could Do It: YouTube is a huge hit because it combines Google with television. Type in something you want to see, and you get it. The time investment to learn is low, and the hilarious, short-form content makes it worthwhile for a mainstream user to learn how to do it.
  2. Be Useful: The biggest complaint I hear from the “late adopters” is: learning how to use a new website (beyond reading it like a newspaper) is not “fun,” it’s a chore. Therefore, there needs to be a clear reward for the time spent trying to figure it out. A practical need or solution to a problem must be clearly demonstrated.
  3. Don’t Make Me Do Anything Hard Or New: “Voting articles up and down” is not a mainstream activity, especially when you need to be logged in to do it. I get the answer “Why would I want to do that?”. “Building your online reputation as someone who recommends good stories” is met with a blank stare. The “online reputation” concept sounds like something out of a video game.
  4. Privacy: Mainstream users still aren’t comfortable putting their personal stuff online. The concept of their own website makes them uncomfortable – let alone a profile page. Remember, they’re not interested in an “online reputation.”
  5. Email Is Social Enough: It took a lot to get the aged relatives on board with email, and for social purposes it’s “good enough.” The “social network” of email allows them to share stuff (links, music, digital photos) and everyone is in it. Sure, it’s clunky, but I can’t think of any social service that demonstrates enough utility to supersede email.

A Growing Digital Divide: The Video Game Analogy

I agree with the observation that “early adopters” are increasingly leaving the mainstream behind. The tech-obsessed take a lot of stuff that’s old to them for granted, that is still new to everyone else.

Aa hardcore video gamer can figure out how to play a new game without much effort. Meanwhile, I struggle with the multiple controller buttons and incomprehensible game conventions taken from other games I never played. Hence, I’ve given up on the newer consoles as too complicated and frustrating for me to play. And my parents? Forget about it.

I’m interested in video games but the time investment to become an awesome elf is prohibitive. Similarly, social sites have game elements where the more you share, the more you earn respect – take the number “followers.” It takes a lot of time and effort to cultivate this “online reputation.” Many look at the landscape and question the time investment and the eventual reward. And even if the methods of sharing on this new social site are just like flickr, or just like delicious, what if one never used those sites?

(Yes, it’s entirely plausible that all this social networking blogosphere stuff is like a giant MMPORG that has a similarly limited appeal.)

Hence shortcuts appear, like dabbling with the sale of a Twitter account as if it were a character in WoW. Then there’s the example of the Wii, which dumbed down the controller and games to appeal to everyone. Gramps plays the Wii.

Or Just Forget The Mainstream

Maybe Web 2.0 should just give the mainstream the finger and go niche. Not every site needs to be the next YouTube or Google to be successful. A lot of social sites are concentrating on the demographics that “get” this stuff.

Hardcore video games are huge business despite only a particular demographic that can handle the cutting edge experience. Perhaps the “mainstream” is overrated.

And who cares what Dave Letterman thinks, anyway?

Comments

  1. Louis Gray says:

    Related Posts: Gilmore Girls: My Last Post :: Grey’s Anatomy And The iTunes Store… on top of this being a good post, I'm enjoying the “meta” details around each of your items. :-)

  2. tommyl says:

    Too bad there's not a Wii-style interface for any of the social sites.

  3. webomatica says:

    It's some WordPress plug in that generates those. Its logic befuddles me as well.

  4. CyndyA says:

    AMEN! Poke Louis back to the part about FriendFeed! I think he's avoiding my own rhetoric about it, but I agree, and would even take this one further to point out that if your spouse IS involved in tech yet avoids it? It's probably not heading mainstream any time soon. My husband is that yardstick for me, considering he's one of those “I could code that in a weekend” skeptics. Although he HAS decided that he likes Twitter for picking fights with me. I don't think he Tweets anything else.

  5. Mike says:

    Yeah, at some point these people will become too old to use the YouTubes and Googles that spring up (even us, apparently). I'm not sure how worthwhile it will be to use them as a yardstick for too much longer.

    Nice analysis, though. I'm a fan of Common Craft's how-to videos for good explanations of new, useful technology. Check out their RSS and del.icio.us videos, for example.

    As geeks, we're always looking for further optimization, but I don't think the average user sees the time investment as worth it.

  6. jcieplinski says:

    The real crying shame of your chart there is RSS. It's just plain said that RSS is not mainstream, and I totally agree with you that it isn't. This is one of the most important developments of the entire Web 2.0 movement, and “Joe Average” really doesn't have any clue about it. It can literally change the entire way you approach the web, and yet even my semi-tech literate friends don't seem to know it exists. Apple, the kings of making great technology go mainstream, built RSS reading directly into Safari, made it as easy as can be to subscribe and check in on articles, and it's STILL not mainstream. I'm at a loss when it comes to understanding that.

    Great article, man. I really enjoyed your approach to this topic.

  7. vanelsas says:

    He he, good one. I use the spousal approval test all the time. Gets my two excited feet right back on the ground again. I showed her all the featues of the new iPhone, and she was mighty impressed. I then asked her, do you want me to get you one, and she said 'Dude, I just want to make calls and sms, don't need all of that”. I love her ;-)

  8. Damn you – wish I'd written this, great post. I regularly try the Common Craft test on my non-marketing working pals and family. I put safe money on delicious. But you are right, non starter. They 'get' flickr, Picassa, but it's just too fiddly, too much to remember when it comes to sharing stuff. But you do pick up some interesting feedback by accident. TinyURL cropped up in one of my demos. Instant hit with everyone. Not genuine Web 2.0 I grant you, but shows just how simple and smart the online world needs to be.

  9. Nice analysis! I agree that there's a significant divide between early adopters and mainstream.

    Interesting idea, to just leave the mainstream behind. There are certainly going to be technologies that early adopters use (and forget) that never make it into the mainstream. However, can a site be successful if it only appeals to early adopters? Are there really that many of us, and can money be made off us (we don't like to pay for things, after all)?

  10. webomatica says:

    The unwillingness of the early adopters to pay for stuff is a whole 'nother issue. I wonder about ads – since so many early adopters are ad block / ignore saavy, is that part of the pressure to go mainstream – to advertise to a wider base where the money is.

  11. webomatica says:

    Your mention of flickr, tiny URL and “simple” made me remember that when Google first came out it was like, wow, this is just a box and a logo on a white page. It was such a breath of fresh air during the over-decorated portal phase. Seems like that aesthetic is slipping. Twitter and FriendFeed still retain this simple aesthetic, though.

  12. webomatica says:

    I'll definitely check out those videos.

  13. webomatica says:

    Now I definitely love RSS and FriendFeed, but the slog to mainstream is not a given, and I wouldn't be surprised if it remains a geeky tool that is really popular among early adopters. But there's nothing wrong with that, a business can still be made and the company successful.

    “I could code that in a weekend” – I can totally relate as a web designer. I look at Craigslist and its completely retarded look and feel. But it's simple, fast, and it works, plus it's mainstream for sure.

  14. CyndyA says:

    I was thinking of someone else (was it Louis?) who said that their SO didn't “get” RSS. A couple of my feeds? Are the Sunday sale ads. I don't get the paper anymore and it's nice to have the Target sales pop into my reader every Sunday like clockwork. That may be the way they start gaining acceptance. ;)

  15. webomatica says:

    Yep – RSS is really useful. As you know, Apple also added RSS to Mail, turning Mail into a potential RSS reader. I should add some feeds to it and try it out.

    Yet as you mention, it's the act of the mainstream user clicking on a subscribe to feed button and knowing what to do with it that seems to be the hangup. There's a conceptual leap there to understand what's in that feed and why it's good (you don't have to visit the website, now the latest articles are “pushed” to you). But if a user only visits a handful of websites a day, RSS isn't making things easier.

    Then again, perhaps email still does the job as RSS. My father in law figured out how to have a financial website email all their new articles to him. If he wants to share those articles, he knows how to forward the emails. He doesn't subscribe to hundreds of websites to where RSS would be a better solution. So perhaps this is another case where email works good enough.

  16. webomatica says:

    Hah, hah. I think a whole post on various spousal approval tests might be entertaining…

  17. tommyl says:

    I was referring more to the Wiimote-style of interacting with software and content. That's attracted a broader demographic to video games than otherwise would have been – at least to the Wii.

  18. Great work.
    I tend to agree with your last sentence. Social media are about people and they are descentralized (read: long tailed). The economics of the mainstream need, and prefigure, a scarcity ambience: 1 media -> 10 news -> 10.000 people. In an ambience of abundancy it doesn't make any sense.
    “Here”, one only cares what Dave Letterman thinks so he can comment and make fun of it. Everybody has is own top 10.

  19. Super fun post — great work. I think your #3 criterion, related to age is critical. I think media consumption is very much related to age demographics. The folks who grew up watch TV and (avoiding) reading newspapers will never get the social media thing. Kids growing up immersed in tech will be much more likely to try new tech out.

    Those of us who straddle both worlds have an important role as “mediators” (literally) — as you mention, people come to you for guidance, because you can translate the cutting edge jargon into applications they can understand.

  20. DeboraB says:

    What a dark page in here. I understand that the lady has experience into giving advices, but her advices might not apply to what marriage has become nowadays and they'd really need to check marriage family counseling because they know what's going on between relationships today, not back in the late 50's.