Now playing: Silicon Valley short attention span theater

Oh, this is so exciting!

Five weeks after the launch of Facebook’s new platform, certain Internet commentators (whom you can find in my “Guilty Pleasures” blogroll, directly to your right — and no, I’m not talking about Rosie) have declared Facebook’s new initiative to be passe, so over, no longer groovy, kicked out of the in club, and a “pricked bubble”.

That was fast.

Five f______ weeks!

If the backlash against Facebook’s platform has begun, then let me now start the backlash against the backlash.

Silicon Valley — and the tech industry generally — suffers from a particularly acute form of “short attention span theater”.

This has always been the case — there has always been an “inside baseball” effect within our industry where new trends are adopted and dissected at a hyperactive pace by those of us who care a lot about new technology.

The topics of focus used to be new chip architectures, new disk drives, new database architectures, new operating systems, new networking protocols — and have now moved on to new consumer Internet services, new forms of messaging, new ways to deploy video, new ways to do scripting and embedding, new approaches to ecommerce.

More recently, aided and abetted by new communications technologies such as blogging and instant messaging, the inside baseball effect has become particularly acute and short-sighted among the group Josh Kopelman famously dubbed the Techcrunch 50,000 — the core group of Internet industry aficionados and early adopters, including myself and many of my friends, who live, sleep, and breathe this stuff.

It works like this: A new technology hits the market in its earliest form — social networking, or peer-to-peer video streaming, or voice over IP, or widget-style embedding, or now the Facebook platform. Said technology is rapidly adopted by the Techcrunch 50,000, who jump all over it, enthuse about it, dissect it, analyze it, write about it, use it some more, find some limitations in it, tire of it, cynically dismiss it, and then move on to the next thing, almost overnight.

Sometimes the new thing then proceeds to fall over and die, starved of attention and press coverage, and forever confined to life in a tiny niche of die-hards. And the Techcrunch 50,000 say, yep, called it.

But sometimes, the new thing goes on its merry way, ignored and dismissed by the in crowd, and grows, and grows, and grows, and grows, and grows, and grows — and is ultimately discovered by millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, or even billions of people all around the world who incorporate it into their daily lives and don’t have the foggiest idea that there was ever a group of insiders who dismissed it a few weeks into its pre-adolescence.

Let’s take a look at the points made by our friends in my Guilty Pleasures blogroll:

  • “Unimpressive apps” — “for users, the novelty has worn off” the first set of Facebook apps. My response: five f______ weeks! We haven’t evenbegun to see the interesting apps on Facebook yet.
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  • “Illusory popularity” — “it’s not clear” that “users” will “stick” with apps. My response: five f______ weeks! We don’t have the slightest idea yet how Facebook users six months from now, a year from now, two years from now are going to react to, adopt, stick with, and/or abandon apps. How can we — we don’t even know what those apps will be yet!
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  • “Disappointing numbers” — “most of the attention is hogged by the most popular apps, and those tend to be the ones present at launch”. My response: five f______ weeks! Any new app on Facebook that wasn’t present at launch by definition can have only been in market for a max of about five weeks — that isn’t enough time to draw any conclusions about numbers.

     

    An anonymous commentator made the observation that, of the last 500 apps to be approved by Facebook, only five have more than 100,000 members. The last 500 apps, logically, have to all have been approved within the last three or four f______ weeks!

    Further, how many new apps on any platform in the whole history of computing are you aware of that acquired more than 100,000 members in their first three or four weeks, before this? Approximately none.

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  • “Change in the rules” — Facebook is tweaking the invitation algorithms, reducing the rate at which users can invite their quote-unquote friends to new apps — which, I would imagine, is the first of many such changes that Facebook will do to both their virality features and limitations, as Facebook does the sensible thing and attempts to balance the goals of preserving a clean user experience with enabling proliferation of lots of applications.

     

    Again, my response: five f______ weeks! You have to expect this will continue to change, and that some of the changes will accelerate app adoption while some will reduce it, as Facebook, its developers, and its users learn how this new world is going to work at scale.

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  • “Natural saturation point” where “people stop inviting their friends” and “trying out every new triviality”. First up, if you’re developing a triviality, don’t expect anyone to use it. That’s no surprise.

     

    However, that said, if you’re developing a real app, you can conclude absolutely nothing from some theory that we’ve already hit a “natural saturation point” five f______ weeks in, and the rest of this post will talk about why.

 

General theory time:

In any given year, a ton of new technologies will hit the market. Most of them will fail to achieve product/market fit, and will fade from view and never be heard from again. That is how it has always been and will always be. This stuff is not easy.

However, every once in a while, you get a new technology that will march, more or less predictably, through the following stages: alpha; beta; pre-adolescent general release where it is adopted, picked apart by, and then dismissed by the inside baseball crowd; silence while it’s tweaked and tuned and enhanced to have broader appeal; adoption by a new wave of pragmatic early adopters who have a real use for it in their daily lives; adoption by those early adopters’ friends and relatives and colleagues based on enthusiastic word of mouth; and then a gradual spiralling of uptake into the mass market, ultimately resulting in whatever level of millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, or billions of users for whom the technology is truly appropriate.

This, also predictably, takes years. Even when it happens really fast.

This is how things go mainstream.

This is what happened with:

  • The PC — 1+ billion users and growing
  • The web browser — 1+ billion users and growing
  • SMS — 2+ billion users and growing
  • Ecommerce — hundreds of millions of users and growing
  • Instant messaging — hundreds of millions of users and growing
  • VOIP — 100+ million users and growing
  • The MP3 player — at least tens of millions of users and growing
  • Internet video — niche/marginal at best until sudden takeoff a couple years ago with Youtube and now exploding in about a hundred different forms for tens of millions of users and growing fast.
  • Social networking! The in crowd first wrote off social networking post-Friendster, then again post-Orkut. Then social networking started to get traction in the mainstream market — four years later! — in 2005-2006 with MySpace and now Facebook.

Yes, these are the exceptions. But here’s what they all have in common: they all got to a point where they had 10 or 20 million users and were still growing fast, and then they just kept on growing. You almost never see a new technology that reaches 10 or 20 million users and is still growing fast, that then falls over and dies.

Call it escape velocity or whatever you want, but social networking now has it, Facebook now has it, and the best prediction you can make is that you are seeing the beginning of widespread mainstream adoption at a scale that the original early adopters can barely imagine.

Remember, people love this stuff. People love the Internet, they love technology, they love new things, and in particular they love new ways to connect, new ways to share, new ways to communicate — new ways to be part of the network, part of the world. That’s why you get more than a billion normal, regular people to adopt the Internet in about 12 years from a nearly standing start, and that’s a powerful predictor for what the next decade is going to be like.

Digging into social networking a little bit more: Facebook has something like 20 or 30 million users. MySpace has perhaps 40 or 50 million; it’s hard to say exactly. These are big numbers, but the latest estimates from credible sources are that there are more than a billion Internet users already, and that number is growing fast too. The obvious conclusion is that most Internet users have not yet even heard of social networking, much less adopted it, much less decided that it has hit some kind of “natural saturation point”.

One billion plus Internet users — all interconnected, all one click away from the next mainstream service — is a huge market.

Betting against a market that big, and betting against things that have reached escape velocity at 20+ million users and are growing fast into that market, is a sucker’s game.

This stuff is just getting started.

Those of you who were around in the mid 90’s, when the Internet was first emerging into its own as a consumer medium, may remember that a certain New York-based newspaper of record had a well-regarded technology reporter who decided to enhance his reputation by writing a series of front-page articles about how the Internet was a fad, about how all the estimated Internet user numbers were inflated, about how the whole thing was overblown, and about how the Internet would most likely never develop into a true consumer medium.

I sure wish I could remember his name.

I’ll close with a prediction on Facebook and Facebook apps:

We’re now in the summer slump, when all the kids are outside playing and going to the movies (well, at least watching movies of questionable provenance on their laptops), and necking in the bushes.

We’ll see three months of experimentation and development of new apps on Facebook, including many false starts and many duds, but also a whole series of innovative new apps that we haven’t even thought of yet.

Come September, with the resumption of the school year and a whole crop of new freshpeople, Facebook traffic will once again go vertical, as will adoption of the best of the new apps.

You heard it here first.