Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Perils of Being Sure of Trends

I work in an industry where I am surrounded by new media "experts." I might even consider myself one sometimes. With new Facebook changes, ongoing mobile device/tablet wars and the like, just about anyone with an opinion is telling us what the future is... occasionally charging money for the privilege of hearing about it.

I've been to two social media conferences now. Both have been excellent, but one way they have been excellent has been the "who really knows?" attitude that hangs over most discussions. Someone tried something that worked. It may or may not be easy to duplicate. Or it won't be. Who knows?

Recent observations, though, seem to indicate an upswing in sweeping statements that not only could be way off base, but actually (I think) threaten the collective credibility of all of us "experts."

I think this started around the launch of the iPad. At the time, tablets were not new to market (though kudos to Apple for making it seem like they were) and story after story, from CNET to Mashable, spoke of the revolution that was literally at hand. The concept of the "Post PC Era" entered parlance (where it remains).

Yet, here we are... tablets have certainly gained market share, but I'm guessing the bulk of people reading this blog aren't doing so on a tablet. I'll wager that the vast bulk of tablet users don't even write at length on their iPads. If anything, tablets are filling a very comfortable niche in extending the reach of content that was once "chained" to wherever a computer was. I just took an iPad to a trade show and it was incredible.It changed the way we worked at this show from previous years. All the materials I couldn't pack were neatly visible on a small LCD screen. But I still went back to my hotel to work on my laptop every night.

My favorite claim at the launch was that the iPad would mark the end of the Amazon Kindle, possibly the first time anyone with credibility ever posited that a device that cost three times as much to buy would supplant the unbelievably functional market leader. I haven't done a study, but it seems Amazon is doing just fine with the Kindle since the launch of the iPad. In my travels, after an initial burst of people reading books on iPads, I'm back to seeing more Kindles on my flights when it comes to book reading. Maybe it's because people can hold a Kindle in one hand while sipping their beverage with the other. Who knows? The point is this: lots of new media leaders went full bore with the "game changer" language. Today, their statements have to be viewed not only as hyperbole, but in many cases, flat out wrong.

I cannot abide this. People trust folks in our field to offer good counsel on trends. But if the perception of all of us is simply that we hype up the shiny new toys we get to play with instead of stepping back and thinking about price points, function and good ol' human behaviors, we risk cheapening our advice to the point of being viewed as hucksters.

I wish I could say the lessons have been learned. They have not.

The launch of Google+ was roughly treated roughly like the discovery of a new vaccine by many. Expert after expert heralded the launch in big "it's a new world" terms. People did things I don't want to speculate on to get an invite to Google+ and you couldn't turn anywhere without reading that this could be "the beginning of the end" for Facebook.

This drama has yet to enter its final act, but a few months into Google's foray into social media, the only reason people aren't calling it a failure is because it simply has Google's backing.

Let's recap: the most robust social network, Facebook, a free service boasting the better part of a billion users... the service that change after change still has people logging in like crazy... with a name that is a verb (you've "Facebooked" someone), is going to meet its end because Google (also a verb) introduced a social network?

As I blogged three months ago, I wasn't buying it.

Today, I still don't think Google+ will be anything more than an also-ran. At least if it's trying to be Facebook. As Mark Zuckerberg (or Jesse Eisenberg) said, if they had invented Facebook, they would have invented Facebook.

The missing pieces in discussions were users. The reason I don't think people are going to adopt Google+ en masse is because the people that make their online experiences fun are on Facebook. Users will go where the other users are. And, at least for most individuals, that place remains Facebook.

We talk and talk and talk about how we're in an era of individualization in media. How each person makes his or her own choices about how to consume media. Yet, how many "experts" treat us all like a single body when making their sweeping statements about social media trends or the new tech toy?

There has also been shortsightedness on the part of many in how the Google+/Facebook discussion is framed. A key factor many cite for an eventual migration from Facebook to Google+ is privacy, primarily that perception that Facebook shares personal data.

A couple things: 1) Free services absolutely share some personal information... incidentally, only the info that we provided to them in the first place. But these are businesses and need money. In good news, I think most people know that and would have the same apprehensions about Google. Yet, this was missing in the discussion, for the most part.

More notable to me is 2) security on Google appears to have gaping vulnerabilities that no one is talking about.

I have asked it plainly - to people who should know - and no one has answered me with anything other than "gee... maybe?"

If I accidentally click on a link in a Google+ post that deploys malware - as happens every day to someone on Facebook and Twitter and results in spam posts - just how much access has the malware given the hacker? What I mean is, I try my darndest not to click on links that could be spam/malware. But, on Facebook or Twitter, the worst case is spam posts that annoy me and my friends and can easily be fixed.

But my Google+ account? Yeah, that site is linked to my Gmail. And Google docs. THIS BLOG. And any other Google product. So, does the right hack suddenly have access to my Gmail? You know, the one where I have a lot of personal stuff? Can that person fire off an email to whoever they want from my Gmail?

It's bad that I don't have a clear answer, but it's worse that the people who should be asking this sort of question aren't.

Just today, Mashable had an article about how new apps were coming to Google+. You cannot convince me that not a one of them won't be used for ill means. Where was the concern?

In the meantime, it will keep on happening. Few have even touched a Kindle Fire and already, speculation is rampant about what it does to the market. Maybe what it does is allow folks who don't use a tablet every day to feel good about paying for a tablet. But no one is asking about the new touch screen Kindle readers. Now I have to use two hands to turn a page? I don't know... it sounds like it might not go as expected, but until I see users reaction, I cannot make the judgment.

The next few years will certainly bring more changes in the landscape. But we need to stop being cheerleaders for the tech brand of our choice. If we're in an age of citizen journalism, we need to ask the tough questions or risk losing our credibility as counselors. And we need to get comfortable with not knowing what device or service will "win."

We need to keep the focus on audiences and reaching them the ways they want to be reached. New media, sure... but old-school PR thinking.

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