Hello New Social App. Why Should I Use You?

This was originally published last July on Stowe Boyd’s blog /message, reproduced here with Stowe’s permission due to my odd feeling of wanting to have all my stuff in one place.

A new week, a new wave of invites. Hello New Social App, I’m an edgling, so I’ve got a pre-punched hole in my cheek for your hook. If you’ve got a new app that’s even mildly interesting, odds are I’ll jump on an invite and check your shit out. Why? It’s a mix of an admittedly petty urge not to be left behind, the excitement of an unexplored landscape, and the joy of turning friends who’re further from the edge on to new and exciting things. So I’m your perfect target-groupie, right?

Well, I was. My attitude’s changing. I certainly have my waves of social media fatigue (who doesn’t?), but that’s not it. I’m getting sick of having to work to understand you, New Social App. After this week’s identi.ca rush, I noticed how tired I am of expending energy to understand the value of a new app every week.

My identi.ca experience went like this: me and 172 of my best friends are standing around eating chocolate ice cream (Twitter) together. Then somebody shouts, "hey guys, the guy next door’s got ice cream too!" And about a quarter of us drop our ice cream and rush next door to see what’s up. The guy next door (identi.ca) does indeed have ice cream. It’s chocolate too. Tastes the same but he’s forgotten the spoons, and most of the people I was sharing ice cream with a few minutes ago didn’t come with. So we all rush back again, resume our ice cream party, and forget about the guy next door almost immediately.

There may be some amazing technical advance behind identi.ca, some subtle stirring in The Force that makes it special. Maybe I’m just not Jedi enough to feel it. Social apps have got it pretty easy so far. Most of their target-groupies are Jedis: pre-alpha-early-adopters who build things themselves and enjoy teasing out the hair-splitting advantages of any new service and blogging about them so that Padawans like myself might also give a damn.

But where’s the social web going? The future of the social mob are those in the center who’re taking hesitant steps towards the edge, and they haven’t even heard of The Force. That’s your plumber, your dentist, and yes, your mother. The more "normal" it becomes to use these apps, the less interesting the technology behind it becomes. My New Social App, you’re soon going to have to start preaching to someone other than the choir.

I’m an edgling in spirit, but I’m no coder, so I guess I’m a good canary for your coal mine. You should know that I and your mother don’t care about your software architecture, we don’t care about how many days it took you to get built and we don’t care if Scoble or Arrington like you. All we want to know is: "What can you, and you alone, do for me?" If we can’t understand this in 15 minutes (at the very most), you’ve lost us.

The pre-registration page helps to lure me in, if it’s done right. A few sites have this covered:

Twitter: a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

FriendFeed: Discover what your friends are sharing.

Feedly: a more social and magazine-like start page.

But they all drop the ball as soon as they’ve got their hooks in. I’m interested, I sign up… what now? How do I find friends? What can I do here? Um, there’s nothing going on here, is there? Why should I keep using this thing? Silence. Buh-bye.

One of the few services I’ve seen that does this right is LinkedIn. They’ve got a didactic interface which immediately gives me things to do, explained in simple terms. By doing these things I learn what they are and what their value is for me. They take me by the hand and show me around. They make me feel welcome.

Another exciting development in this direction is commoncraft and their videos which explain web technology in plain English. They’re so simple and make everything seem so interesting and easy that Twitter added "Twitter in Plain English" to their home page. Twitter didn’t develop the video themselves, but at least they took notice. Commoncraft may not understand technology (I can’t say I know) but they definitely understand communication, and that’s what society’s all about, right?

So, my New Social App, open the door, invite me in, and tell me up front what you can do for me. But don’t forget to serve drinks and give me a friendly tour. If all you want is registered guests at your party, I’ll be there like every other edgling that gets an invite. But if you want more than zombies standing in the corner dribbling ice cream, make sure I know why your ice cream’s the best, show me the ropes, and make sure I’ve got a personal reason to stay and love you.