The disconnect between the tech elite and Main Street

The technology elite may be turning their backs on Facebook at the very moment when the mainstream is most ready to adopt the social-networking powerhouse.

Tim O'Reilly has built a compelling media business by "watching the alpha geeks" and using them as a compass to determine where the mainstream market will follow. Other companies like Google and Facebook, however, seem intent on building their own empires by largely ignoring this geek elite.

It turns out that the wants and needs of mainstream users can differ significantly from those of the technology elite. Geoffrey Moore figured this out years ago in his classic Crossing the Chasm.

Geoffrey Moore/The Chasm Group

Apparently some people missed the memo.

Silicon Valley and the techno-babblers have expressed dismay at Facebook's privacy policies and claim to be leaving en masse. Even some of my good friends and colleagues have left.

I'll miss them. But I guess I can get other friends. :-)

You see, 400-plus million people continue to actively pour personal information into Facebook on a regular basis, and Facebook's user count is growing, not shrinking.

This isn't surprising. Mainstream consumers have very different concerns from the technology elite.

Indeed, following Moore's ideas, the technology-savvy early adopters' distaste for Facebook may suggest the company is about to hit an even more impressive jackpot.

I'm not suggesting Facebook is angelic or that it has always done right by its users. Beacon, for example, was a mistake of significant proportions. Caroline McCarthy highlights Facebook's history of gaffes.

But given how hard it is to invent the future, we should be more cautious than many in the early-adopter crowd to throw stones at Facebook. As Henry Blodget points out, were Facebook to capitulate too meekly to the media beating it has taken, it might incapacitate its ability to deliver the functionality users will come to love

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If Facebook were to radically change its approach to innovation, meanwhile, seeking prior approval for every change it makes, its innovation would slow to a crawl. It would also sacrifice the opportunity to roll out innovations that initially freak people out but that soon become wildly popular (News Feed). Given that Facebook's whole product is walking this ever-flammable line between public and private, Facebook's users won't likely know what they're cool with until they see it in action. So asking them ahead of time would just lead to a lot of "no's," even with respect to innovations that people would eventually want.

Disagree? Consider Apple. Apple is famously disdainful of asking anyone's opinion of what it should build. As a result it ends up with some weak products (like Apple TV) and some pretty incredible ones (like the iPhone).

No one (but Steve Jobs) asked for the iPhone to be built. And now an entire industry has been reshaped in Apple's image.

Google, for its part, has also taken a road less traveled with its Nexus One. While Android has been a runaway hit (by just about any metric), Google's disintermediation of the retail purchasing experience with the Nexus One has been anything but, leading it to kill its online Nexus One shopping experience and broaden availability of the phone through retailers.

In this case, Google's experiment didn't work. But do we really want companies to design by committee?

Even in open source, with its strong community ethic, the answer is often "no." Take the company I work for, Canonical, which sponsors and is primary developer on the Ubuntu Linux project. Ubuntu could not exist without its community, which features more than 300 core developers (most not employed by Canonical), nearly 18,000 translators, and more than a million forum members.

And yet Ubuntu is not a democracy, as Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth recently said. This prompted the following commentary:

The trouble with democracy in the open-source world is that the result is often muddled and mediocre. That "happy medium" isn't all too happy after all; the companies with the gutsiest (and often, least democratic) decision-making processes are those which often take the lead. And if you're thinking Apple, you're not the only one.

We don't really want to carry gadgets or use social networks designed by committees. We want stuff that works and manufacturers and designers that are reasonably open to outside feedback and input. Facebook, for all its problems, delivers on that promise. It killed Beacon. It can resolve the current problems, too.

At the end of it all, Facebook will be bigger than ever, just as Google has been as it has worked through its own privacy problems. As more and more of our lives move online, we'll grow increasingly comfortable sharing personal information (indeed, we already have: remember when no one you knew had a blog?) and letting companies tap into that information to give us deals.

The technology elite may have moved on, but the mainstream is just settling in.

About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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