Yet again, marketing guru Seth Godin has managed to put into words one of the things that has long pissed me off but defied my ability to explain.
Lock in is what happens once you have a lot of followers on Twitter… it’s not easy to switch. Same with all social networks. And operating systems too–it takes a lot of hassle to walk away from iOS.
Once a company has achieved lock in, one way to grow is to appeal to those that haven’t been absorbed (yet), to change the product to make it appeal to people who need it to be simpler, dumber and less powerful, because (the company and its shareholders understand) the power of the network becomes ever more irresistible as it scales.
Forget, for a moment, that he uses Twitter as an example. It doesn’t matter. His point is that you create website/product/system A and it works. It gains traction. People like it, use it, enjoy it. The early adopters are the “power users,” the ones who seize upon it because it works for them. The company who created it throws a party because they won’t be on the bread line tomorrow. Hooray!
But then, some suit says, “so how do we scale this to make the 99% of the public who isn’t using it come on board?” History shows that the easiest way to make something appeal to the masses is to make it easier to use and more appealing to the sensibilities of the lowest common denominator.
And so the information density and power of your phone’s operating system goes down, not up. The tools available on various sites become easier to use, but less appealing to those that made the site work in the first place. (This isn’t new, of course. The same thing could be said for the design of chainsaws, edgy retail stores and most sports cars too).
Remember MS DOS? Of course not. It was the operating system used by computers when your mother was cool. It was the way computers worked when people were required to have some minimal degree of understanding about how computers function. It required people to know how to execute programs. There was this thing called a “C prompt,” and it gave life to the internet.
But it was way too hard for most people to use. You had to remember stuff, like program names and syntax, and if you got it wrong, the computer responded by calling you a pathetic loser. It made people cry. So Microsoft came up with pretty pictures called icons, and if you clicked on the pretty picture, it made the computer happen for you. They called it “Windows,” and any idiot could use Windows. And they did.
I resisted Windows for a long time, preferring instead to be true to my old friend, the C prompt. But soon enough, everything was geared toward the pretty pictures, and I realized the war was lost. Resistance was futile. Because I was unprepared to give up access to programs and the internet, and my choices were limited to Microsoft’s pretty pictures or Apple’s pretty pictures, I had no choice but to surrender.
That hasn’t been the case for many other once-beloved (or at least regularly used) websites, products or services.
That leads to a pretty common cycle of power-user dissatisfaction. The people who care the most leave first.
One day, everything is cool, they work great and I’m up to my eyeballs in commitment. The next day, they announce that they’re “new and improved,” whether because they’re now doing something that changes their purpose or utility or “ease of use” in order to cater to the needs of their unserved community. In other words, they’ve dumbed it down so all the nice folks who were too stupid to use it before can now hop aboard. This is when I bail.
The question today is: has lock in (due to social network power) become so powerful that power users can’t leave, even if they’re tired of being treated like people who marketers seem to believe want something too-simple* and dumb? Without a doubt, networks yearn to be bigger and more inclusive. The challenge is to do that without losing what made them work.
*too-simple is not the same as simple. Simple is good, because it enables power. Too-simple prevents it.
I can’t begin to name the number of websites, businesses, services that I’ve used on computers and the internet since about 1992 that were once the kings of their niches, necessities I couldn’t live without, that committed suicide by improving themselves into pointlessness.
For someone who wasn’t born a digital native, and had to learn the keystrokes along the way, this irritates me to no end. I learned to love them, to need them, to rely on them, and they abandoned me. The adage, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, rules.
But then, they didn’t fix it because it was broke. They fixed it because they wanted to pander to the lowest common denominator. They already got the first wave eyeballs, and were now trying to lure in the rest. To do so, they lost what made them work in the first place.
There are two ways to scale to the simple: the first is to dumb down the original to make it available to those too incapable of using a product in its original form. The second is to raise the awareness and competency of the lowest common denominator. In other words, it the dopes want to be like the cool kids on Twitter, let them figure out how to use it. The first can be controlled by the business seeking new eyeballs. The second requires the dopes of the world to put in effort.
Godin is unhelpful, however, about one thing. Where is the line between simple and too simple? The only way you find out is to cross it, and once that happens, you’re dead.