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Usefulness beats luxury in social technologies

by Joanne Jacobs on 17 August 2012

“Everyone wants to figure out how they can live like a millionaire without actually making a million dollars.”

So said Randi Zuckerberg (sister of the Facebook founder) in Melbourne this week. The internet entrepreneur was speaking at the Australian Chambers Business Congress, expounding the notion that emergent successful social media tools are those that focus on entertainment, and achieving a luxurious lifestyle.She cited the examples of ordering car washing services (paying via your mobile phone account), as well as charitable alarm clocks, tweeting scales and games-based applications of daily activities as a means of spicing up our mundane lives.

Social bling, courtesy of Graphic Leftovers

These are, indeed, the kind of social media services and applications that are getting attention in the press at the moment. And RZuck is probably right that social media has become a playground for small scale luxuries. But I wonder if the notion of becoming a small-time millionaire is just a bit disparaging to the majority of social users? Because it’s certainly ignoring the value of emergent technologies as catalysts or contexts for improved productivity.

I’m often frustrated that the engagements happening in social networks and online are considered as just a way of making things ‘fun’. I have no problem with having fun, indeed I regard it as essential to a balanced life. But it feels like we’re dumbing social technologies down by focusing only on their potential for amusement. I acknowledge freely that those essentially banal ‘Likes’ and comments that fill our social feeds are not exactly Shakespeare, but I personally browse my feeds to learn, to discover new ideas and to seek advice.

I suspect I’m not alone. When it comes to applications, I find the most valued are not those that offer a millionaire’s lifestyle on a budget, but rather, those applications that are simply more effective or efficient than previous ways of operating. For instance, I’d rather be able to track a taxi that is on its way to pick me up, than peering down the street in both directions, wondering if the taxi company has lost my order. I’m less likely to be worried about a taxi being delayed a few minutes, if I can see the exact location of that cab I requested on my phone. This technology already exists through applications like GoCatch, and it’s revolutionising the way I think about transport. It’s not just as good as ordering a cab by phone. It’s more efficient.

Other apps that provide ease of access to existing content or to other people in various networks are desirable not merely because they make life more fun – even though that may be an ancillary benefit – but rather because this access is easier, cheaper, more efficient and more timely than it ever has been. So for me, and I suspect for many others, social technologies and applications are simply useful. They make life easier, not because I seek a millionaire lifestyle, but because it’s more effective and efficient than being disconnected from the ‘net. If the quality of my life increases, or if I can enjoy communicating with my networks, then that may positively reinforce my decision to adopt these apps, but it’s not the reason why I begin to use them.

A colleague of mine has made the obvious (yet still crucial) point that it’s no good just having a great product. You have to have customers. You have to be selling something people actually want to buy. I suspect when it comes to social networks, internet services and applications, people don’t really want to buy a millionare lifestyle on a budget. They want to buy time, service, information, ideas and feedback. All improve their lives, but primarily in terms of productivity. From idea mining and immediate customer service, to more efficient personal communications, it is productivity of interactions that garners the greatest advancement from emerging tech.

I’d like to see a change in the way we view social technologies as being the trivial domain of fame and fortune-hungry attention-seekers. We shouldn’t consider ambitions for time, services and ideas as being the proclivity only of the educated elite. There is a general desire for betterment. That doesn’t mean we’re all looking for a millionaire’s lifestyle. It’s a natural and entirely rational desire to improve how we live.

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