The excellent Brent Simmons linked to the first part of what seems to have become a series here, saying:
My blog’s older than Twitter and Facebook, and it will outlive them. It has seen Flickr explode and then fade. It’s seen Google Wave and Google Reader come and go, and it’ll still be here as Google Plus fades. When Medium and Tumblr are gone, my blog will be here.
The things that will last on the internet are not owned.
Two of those items are worth noticing: Google Wave and Google Reader.
Google Reader was a centralized RSS reader. It did build on the open standards I so like. Yet it failed. But it didn’t fail by the virtue of dwindling user count. If it was a question of economy, I’m willing to bet Google would have made ads work or even be able to extract what now passes for a princely sum (two bucks or so monthly). The evidence available to me suggests that after Larry Page had taken the advice from Steve Jobs that Google needed to figure out what it wanted to be when it grew up, he had started the company on the path to throwing all but a few good things overboard and transforming most of the rest into excuses for Google+ interaction, in what future historians will be naming a great example of metaphorical self-immolation. This upsets me a bit, but point being, it didn’t fail because it was RSS. And because it was RSS, every website so integrated still had a perfectly serviceable feed to make available to any and all clients (including NetNewsWire, the non-Google Reader-client I was using before, during and after Google Reader’s reign, and which coincidentally was written by Brent Simmons).
Google Wave, on the other hand, was a rare taken shot at something truly new. It was meant to support a new mode of communication and take advantage of technology, and it both built on existing standards and made its new standard open. Google Wave still exists, as Apache Wave. Technology-wise, it’s a success story. User-wise, it seems that no one was able to figure it out, and/or that no one would even give it a chance since it was so different from what was already out there. For Google Wave to have worked, it needed external, normal people to immediately click with the mode of interaction it presented, and to perchance want to talk with other such people using this sort of tool.
Additionally, Google Wave was felled by two related and often overlapping attitudes from the technical community: inertia and originality without an alibi. Inertia is “I looked at one part of what it did, and I already have something like this, so I’m just going to keep using this”. Originality without an alibi is “they invented something new and I highly disapprove of this practice – I don’t see what it’s a solution to, so I will avoid it”.
Common to both of those rejections are that people were expected to swallow everything that was new about Google Wave whole, and as fait accompli. If some people outside of the Wave team had seen the steady iteration of its form of expression or communication, it might have been easier to connect with it piece by piece. Had Google Wave been three times as capable, it would have been more than three times more difficult getting it to gain traction. This has to do with the sunk cost fallacy and human psychology — I can’t have been doing so many things wrong for so long, so I will preserver. It has to do with trouble grasping what’s being solved and how the alternative is better. Certainly, it has to do with new terms and new metaphors. Google Wave didn’t exactly fall over itself to be approachable.
When I’m calling for open standards as I am, it’s easy to say “but if you focus on those things, you’ll only appeal to graybeards or Diaspora fans” and scoff derisively. And sure enough, that has tended to happen. The problem is that open standards have only worked when they have been created to solve something obvious, or in along the way to solve something non-obvious in a very convincing way. I wasn’t around in the 1970’s, but I’m pretty sure the basics of the actual usage of the first Internet email standards would be understandable to the non-technical supporting staff at any of the companies that formulated them. Maybe the exact format and details of bang-addresses would be confusing, but sending a message from someone to other people was a concept everyone who’d received a PM, or why not a piece of postal mail, understood perfectly well.
But if that’s the case, if Diaspora was meant to work exactly as Facebook and App.net exactly as Twitter, why didn’t they work? Because most people actually were using Facebook and Twitter. Even if they were twice as well implemented, communication is about being able to talk to people. If they aren’t there, it’s not gonna work.
I obviously don’t know everything about this, but I think I’ve seen a few patterns in what tends to work:
- Something simple and approachable.
- Something that solves what you think of as a problem in a way that you can easily grasp.
- A solution that isn’t just a disconnected twine ball of theory; something you can actually bring into your life today.
- Something that’s not a clone or close to a clone of something else you could already be doing.
There are also two corollaries:
- If it’s something revolutionary, you can’t expect everyone to get it at once, and you’re probably still better off revealing it piece by piece and letting people’s reactions play out since it gives you more chances to tune your solution to how people actually use, react to or feel about it.
- Gall’s law: “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.”
This doesn’t tell anyone how to replace Facebook or Twitter with durable alternatives. I’m sorry if you thought I knew how to – if I did, I might have tried it myself. But I hope it gives those who’ll try a few indications about what their odds are to gain traction.