Mundane technology’s massive impact: the case of social network overload

We often have the mistaken impression that “breakthrough” technologies are the ones that will be the source of radical change. The first rocket. The first telephone. The flying car. These technologies stand out in our collective mind as iconic innovations. Such innovations, we believe, cause irrevocable social change.

The innovator’s dream, crushed by reality

Unsurprisingly, it is that “flying car” that most technologists seek to create, something so radically different, so completely new, that it will disrupt social lives and business models.

Yet this almost never happens. Radical innovation is rare, and radical innovation that takes root in social life is even more rare. Instead, it is the large number of small innovations that culminate in large-scale social shifts, and it is in that space where technologists should focus.

Fertile Field No. 1: Communication Channels

One such space today is that of online social networks and their respective communication channels.These networks have proliferated, and with them has emerged a dizzying array of “channel choices” through which we must now choose to communicate.

Imagine you have just had a successful first date. Once upon a time, you might have wondered to yourself, “Should I call him?” How quaint. How simple. How 20th Century.

Now, of course, you must create a mental flow chart, with all your channel choices if’d and then’d with your ambiguous social reality. Is he a friend of a friend? Is he your “friend,” on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram, or maybe even LinkedIn? Will you see him at the office tomorrow? Will you “see” him on skype later? The flow chart proliferates with innumerable maladroit choices, each one a potential social landmine ready to blow up in your face (and his).

Welcome to the 21st Century, the time of enriched social channels but impoverished social etiquette.

Worse still, individuals are not only ridden with social angst over their choices, but they are also overwhelmed with notifications.

Adroit social actors will of course navigate this field, if not with actual aplomb then at the very least with competency. The rest of us are left with a dizzying set of communication choices and nary an @EmilyPost to help us. It is a bewildering time.

Mind The Gap: The TRiZ Method

Such times are ripe for innovation. At this moment (and I do mean a “moment” in the historical sense of the word), there is a gap in technology. Such gaps are, unbeknownst to most, the most opportune for new products and services to emerge. They are also ripe for new social practices to emerge, which most tech observers tend to miss, gloss over, or underestimate the impact of.

TRiZ analysis (or теория решения изобретательских задач, or theory of inventive problem-solving) shows us why “breakthrough” technologies are rare and often without the hockey-stick growth of other, more mundane innovations.

One truth of technological change is its remarkable unevenness. Some technologies grow and change at remarkable rates, while other technologies languish, perhaps due to technical limitations, or more likely due to political economic reasons. Take, for example, the incredible growth of SMS texting on mobile phones. SMS is a simple technology, requiring entry-level technical skills. It is not “sexy” but it is massively adopted.

SMS turned 20-years-old in 2012, and is now the pre-eminent way mobile phone users around the world communicate. By 2002, Indian mobile phone users were sending 250 billion SMS texts a day. In 2008, SMS replaced voice phone calls as the primary way people use their mobile phones in the United States.

SMS took off because mobile phone voice calls remained too expensive for most people to use frequently. SMS, by contrast, was initially free on most mobile systems.  Adding even more wood to the fire was the fact that SMS is discreet and socially inconspicuous. A quick text under the table is far less socially intrusive than a voice phone call while having dinner.

Is SMS a killer app? Yes. Was it ever pursued by technologists to be the killer app? No.


The Gap in Communication Channels

There is a similar fertile gap waiting to be filled in today’s harrowing communication landscape. Users are begging for tools that help them make the most socially astute channel choices, and at the same time, reduces the information overload they are experiencing. Our search for notifications has corrupted our social and internal lives.

We are no longer able to navigate the sheer volume and socially ambiguous nature of our communications ecosystem. The Killer App of the 20-teens will not be the one that ADDS to that morass, but the one that saves us from it.

The communications landscape is primed for a tool that will “even out” the uneven technological development. We have no limit to the number of channel choices we can make, but we have no way to manage these choices well. Hootsuite is one tool that has filled this gap, to a limited degree. It allows us to manage multiple Twitter feeds, by multiple people. Its main advantage is its ability to help small businesses manage social media, which today equates to the sum total of small-business marketing strategy.

We need a similar tool, not just for Twitter, but for all our channels. The Next Big Thing is likely to be a tool that saves us from our Technology Loops and helps us manage the context collapse that social networks now present us.

In my next post, I’ll explore another fertile ground for innovation: managing the rapidly proliferating data that we ourselves are generating, just by living our increasingly digital lives.