Too Simple

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.

30 comments on “Too Simple

  1. william doriss

    And what exactly does this have to do with Simple Justice? I thought this was a law blog, not some tech forum. Unless of course, “jusice” has gone/is going hi-tech, which some of us have predicted-feared.

      1. william doriss

        After yesterday’s thrashing of Lurker and Ryan, we civilian commenters are on notice to tread lightly. You were pretty harsh, I thought. In a baaad mood were ye? Did you lose a court appeal!?!
        I still think the attraction of the masses of asses to your blawg site is a Plus, more than a Negative.
        Having to explain things “settled 60 years ago” is certainly frustrating, but that’s life in the fast lane;… or the “slow lane”, as the case may be. Perhaps you could assign the grunt-work to a lowly associate, and you could be the “director-in-chief”.

        1. SHG Post author

          Then you miss the point of SJ. It’s for my amusement, not yours or theirs. It’s not that I mind the occasional ignorant comment, but that I’m not only expected to read 10,000 words conclusively proving the depth of ignorance, but then explain it to them in small words upon demand. As I’ve said over and over, it’s not nearly as much fun for me as it is for them.

          Commenters choose whether to read here and/or comment. I get no choice of who reads or comments, so I’m constrained to deal with all comers. That’s one of the reasons there are different rules for me than for them. They come here and, perhaps unwittingly, make people stupider. I’m left to clean up the mess. They’re not entitled to a tummy rub as well.

        2. Brett Middleton

          “After yesterday’s thrashing of Lurker and Ryan, we civilian commenters are on notice to tread lightly.”

          Gasp! You dare to say what I only dared to think!

          On the line between simple and too simple, I think it gets crossed once too many under-the-hood options are removed and those who are willing to delve into the details no longer have any significant control over the system. Until then the system defaults work fine for the masses, but those willing to become competent can customize to their heart’s content and unlock a lot of hidden power.

          Remember when most people knew just enough about automobiles to be able to drive, but those with an interest could work on them in their own driveways with nothing more than a toolbox, a Chilton’s manual, and a J.C. Whitney’s catalog? Now almost everyone has been reduced to a mere driver.

          1. SHG Post author

            The lawyer to non-lawyer ratio in comments here has gone south lately, and even more so in the criminal lawyer to non-criminal lawyer ratio. The level of discussion even more so. It’s not that I have anything against non-lawyers per se, but thoughtful discussion doesn’t happen when the level of depth if slightly below that of a brick. So the influx of non-lawyers has pushed deeper legal discussion away. I’ve been thinking very hard about banning non-lawyers lately. I haven’t been enjoying the comment very much lately.

            No matter how interesting criminal law may be to non-CDLs, their thoughts really aren’t fascinating, and usually range from the idiotic to the dangerous. And yet, they feel compelled to comment despite having absolutely nothing useful to say. This must end.

            1. Patrick Maupin

              On my way to work is a house with a yard that is chock full of weeds. Only they’re not, apparently. The owner, with a practiced and diligent eye will stand there surveying his domain, motionless for minutes, and then reach in and pull an offending plant that doesn’t belong.

              Only he can decide whether he derives enough pleasure from that to keep doing it — the rest of us either plant lawns or just let the weeds grow.

            2. SHG Post author

              Take a quick look at the comments this morning. All but one are from non-lawyers, and the one lawyer isn’t a CDL. Your metaphor is nice, but unsatisfying. Weeds are invasive and virulent, and overcome the lawn. The lawn gives up and doesn’t bother. I don’t really want to be the gardener.

            3. Patrick Maupin

              > I don’t really want to be the gardener.

              It’s no fun. The question is whether or not you, personally, find the result rewarding enough to keep doing it, and judging from your recent comments, you’re struggling right now.

              At popehat, they revel in the wild tangle of weeds that nature provides. Some other blogs use roundup to kill all the comments, and then, of course, there’s Volokh, which picked up their garden and then dropped it in the middle of Africa — the original plants don’t have a chance. You have chosen a more difficult path, and arguably made it even more difficult on yourself by occasionally being inconsistent, and sometimes allowing the pretty or unusual weed to stand.

              It’s possible your garden would grow in the manner you desire if you limit comments to CDLs, but not being a gardener myself, I couldn’t possibly say.

            4. SHG Post author

              Volokh Conspiracy used to be the envy of all blawgs for the quality of the comments. They started sliding a few years ago, and are now fairly worthless. Popehat is a different issue, as it wasn’t a law blog to begin with, and only recently has Ken made it more law-ish. But the comments have long been dangerous, and I think once Ken tried to focus more on legal issues, he begun to realize how much of a problem the comments were, as he was putting in a good effort to make the posts informative, while the comments would promote some of the stupidest ideas conceivable and undermine the purpose of his posts.

              As for me, yes, I concede that I’m inconsistent. Sometimes, comments just amuse me, even if they’re dumb. I’m a sucker for a good laugh. But my hope was to keep SJ focused. I’m losing the battle. So I’m clear, most of what I want to write about is directed at lawyers. I know they’re reading, but no longer feel comfortable commenting publicly (I get emails, you know). Is that “unrewarding”? Intellectually, yes, it is.

            5. Brett Middleton

              Ah, well. Should you pull this particular weed, you will still not stop Fizzbin from reading and approving in silence, even if he and I have not read 60 years of case law.

              Like it or not, your views still have value to those of us who have not been corrupted by the NYP and others who want to carve great roads through the law to get to the devil, even if we are blind to the finer nuances. Perhaps you will make a few of your non-lawyer readers into better citizens who are more resistant to politicians and others who demand the criminalization of speech, courts that aren’t hung up on “technicalities”, and police with the unrestrained power to get all the Bad People who are currently hiding behind “rights” that innocent people don’t need. Perhaps a few of us will develop a better understanding of professionalism and ethics, and more appreciate for those who exhibit those qualities.

              We’ll be out here, even if we must be content to worship you from afar.

            6. william doriss

              I came up with a solution to the problem here. Open up another, parallel blawg site and call it Simple Justice II, or Simple Justice Lite, or Simple Justice for Dummies. The original SJ is open to lawyers only, and the new SJ is open to the public. Remember the New Coke fiasco and how that problem was resolved?
              Your lowly junior associate operates the parallel site under your direction, freeing you to kibitz with your peers and discuss more important things with the big boys in the profession.
              Here’s an idea: Get some whiz kid to come up with a program which instantly spits out answers and responses to comments from the public. Stewpid questions get trashed, SHG-like, based on a computer analysis of your cumulative writings to date. Intelligent and funny comments will be dealt with accordingly. Computer applications can do many things today; I’m sure this is do-able.
              If you really want to get wild, there could be a breakup of some sort, a murder, and a trial where they get the wrong man. In other words, I see a screenplay in the works here. Run with it right to the Big Screen. You might be able to pay some bills and get out of the hole you’ve dug for yourself.

  2. John_Barleycorn

    There is always a third way.

    It’s the only way to survive the leaps.

    Open source software taking a ride in the cloud will open up plenty of niches for you to rekindle your flame out pessimism esteemed host.

    Dear Seath, IMHO has ben drinking too much Kool-aid. “Crazy” people just don’t settle for “locked in” regardless of the scale/s.

    P.S. Hey william d… What’s the braid between tech forums, law forums, and justice?

    The first wants the second to get the fuck out of the way while the last needs the second if the “monster” is going to be saved from the creator or the creator saved from the “monster” depending on how you look at it.

  3. Jake DiMare

    There’s another frustrating aspect of this problem for those in the business of helping organizations adopt complex, enterprise software: Users are developing a growing expectation that every digital system, no matter how complex the requirements, will have the simplicity of playing Flappy Bird on a smart phone.

    1. KronWeld

      Actually it was Xerox that developed the pretty icons, Apple that ripped them off and finally M$ who copied them. Kinda an interesting story, if you want to Google it. Try starting with Xerox Alto PARC.

        1. KronWeld

          Thank you. While I freely admit I’m a smartass and kinda a nerd, I’ve never been called a frigging smartass nerd. I’ll take it as a compliment.

          I seem to remember that Apple threatened to sue M$ over the icons/Windows. Xerox spoke up and said try it, since you copied us. Apple shut up real quick after that.

          1. SHG Post author

            It was a compliment. I wish I knew so much more than I do. And I love a story where Apple gets smacked.

  4. noah

    Back in the day, both WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 were very powerful – providing tons of accessible formatting options and in Lotus’s case, a great set of functions for powerful calculations. The corresponding MS Office applications did not provide a lot of the “power-user” functions that these older applications did. But MS they did something brilliant, which caused even the “power users” to get on board – they created this VB programming language add-on (the real programmers would say pseudo-programming) that allowed in-depth tinkering and control. Businesses that needed custom functionality could get it. I think this may be the third way – dumb down the default and provide a way for the dedicated power users to have the control that they need.

    Salesforce and Google learned this lesson – they have simple-ish default programs, but have allowed developers to create custom apps through their published APIs (application programming interface). Those APIs take dedication to learn; this is a feature – not everyone wants or needs to take the time to get into them.

    With regard to law discussion, you have clearly provided a valuable service with your accessible commentary on issues important to a lot of people. Because your posts are accessible, you end up with non-CDL comments that don’t always get to the deep level you want. I imagine that it’s difficult to encourage the deep discussion on particular legal issues – I often find that on the CDL listserves. But as a newer CDL, I am more a consumer than a valuable contributor.

    I usually focus on the issues that are facing me in my practice right now. Today, I am procrastinating on writing a motion trying to find a way to avoid concurrent piecemeal prosecution that falls short of the standards of double-jeopardy but still may prejudice the defendant in his rights to present (or not) a defense.

    Anyway, thank you for blogging. I read your blog most days and very much enjoy it.

    1. SHG Post author

      While I have Word on all my computers, I still work in WP. Don’t tell anyone. It’s a much better program. Always has been.

      And thank you for understanding what I’m talking about with the comments. Noah, some guys want to be pundits. Some guys want to chat with their peers.

      1. earlwer

        I have an original boxed WordPerfect 5.1 Manual. It would look perfect in your bookcase. I can mail it to you.
        I seem to have misplaced the 5.25″ floppies. I will look for them.

        1. SHG Post author

          I still have my 5.0 and 5.1 floppies, manuals and (most importantly) the template that went around the function keys. I plan to donate them to the Smithsonian when I’m done using them.

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