October 20, 2017

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The Inevitable Transience of Cool

The Inevitable Transience of Cool

“No one goes there any more, it’s too crowded.”
-Yogi Berra

People Love To Hate What’s Popular

As I sit here in my apartment watching the snow fall, the number one story on Techmeme is: Facebook – back to the kids?. The article, as well as countless other blog posts, should be no surprise. Reports show a dip in Facebook’s users, and, like clockwork, the tech bloggers are saying that Facebook is over. From the BBC article:

Facebook – it’s so over. That’s been the tenor of most of the commentary since Thursday’s figures showing a slight dip in Facebook’s UK users. The general feeling is that the kids, with their minute attention spans, have already tired of the social networking site and moved on to something more hip and happening. I think the opposite is true – that Facebook’s new wave of older users have decided it is just not worth the bother and are now leaving it to the kids.

From ReadWrite Web:

Do these findings foretell a saturation point for social networks? Or are the networks just not that cool anymore now that everyone uses them?

The “Facebook is over” sentiment is nothing new. Anyone could have predicted this even in the days when Facebook was seen as a legitimate competitor to Google. Why? Because Facebook’s popularity was based on its perceived “coolness” factor rather than its substance. It became popular because it became popular. People loved it because people loved it.

When a service is evaluated solely based on popularity, its sustainability is almost entirely tied to its perceived social value. Facebook is only valuable if people think it is cool; it has almost no inherent value.

Let’s break it down in what could be seen as a “life cycle of cool.”

Step One: Coolness By Exclusivity

In this step, a service is only available to a certain subset of the population. Since not everyone can be a member by
simply signing up, the service has some degree of coolness already. The fact that only certain people meeting a set of criteria are eligible to join the club makes it cool. The simple act of exclusion adds perceived value to those accepted.

In Facebook’s case, it started as a service available only to college students. Without an email address from a .edu domain, you simply couldn’t join. So there.

Step Two: Coolness By Obscurity

I am absolutely guilty of step two. I’m the guy that wants to know the little indie band before it gets big. For some sick reason, I want to be the guy that said “Oh yeah, I was into them before they ever got a deal.”

I can’t put my finger on a particular reason why I do this, but the same goes for online services. If there’s a beta invite, I want it. I want to go in, set up shop, and establish my presence there before it goes mainstream. It’s why I have an ooVoo account, but have never used it.

In the case of Facebook, the early adopters were already using Facebook when the rest of the world was discovering MySpace. These are the people that when asked “Are you on Myspace?” Would scoff and reply “MySpace? Lame. I’m on Facebook.”

Step Three: Coolness By Mainstream

In this step, the mainstream media has discovered the service and begins to deify it as the “next big thing.” In the web world, this can usually be seen as the beginning of the end. When your service is shown on 60 minutes, it is no longer cool.

In this step, the floodgates open and everyone signs up. The founder of the service is called a genius. Giant sums of fake internet money appear on the cover of financial magazines in connection with the company.

Step Four: A PR Mistake

Somewhere along the way, the service will do something that negatively affects their public perception. Their squeaky-clean image takes a ding, and annoys some subset of the user base.

This could come in the form of creepy ads that follow you around. It could be a “big brother” moment. It could be an onslaught of applications asking for your attention. It could be just about anything.

Step Five: Collapsing Under Its Own Size

Now that the service has become a household name, it is seen as a commodity rather than something cool. It’s not special anymore.

<Anecdote>
When I was growing up in Upstate NY, we used to go to Myrtle Beach South Carolina on vacation. It was a fun place for
both parents and kids. Slowly but surely, it became THE vacation spot for everyone in our town. You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing someone you knew.

One year, my father said we weren’t going back. His words: “Why go to Myrtle Beach to get away from Hudson Falls if everyone from Hudson Falls is there?”
</Anecdote>

Step Six: Something New Pops Up

Inevitably, a competitor will show up that offers a plus: The same feature set plus something else. At this step, the early adopters will abandon the mainstream service to set up shop at the new guy.

Step Seven: Rinse. Repeat.

Summary

Nothing stays cool forever. This is true in both social networks and haircuts.

Nathan Burke is the Web Community Evangelist for Boston area tech startup matchmine. He also co-authors Blogstring.com.

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3 Comments

  1. contato@peixefresco.net'
    Rodrigo van Kampen

    Great article!
    But now I’m thinking about some services that went over the drop of their ‘coolness’. Maybe google and wikipedia still stands, and they’re sure not new around here. (Well, we know google shows something new every time)
    But what is the secret of these servives? Maybe they offer something really useful. Or maybe they’re just like Mac, which can manage to be cool forever.

  2. jzingsheim@customscoop.com'
    Jen Zingsheim

    Rodrigo, I think perhaps Wikipedia and Google are the “classic bobs, that never go out of style” if we continue to use the haircut analogy (but we don’t have to).
    They continue to be useful and used because they do what they are supposed to do. They also were the only kids on the block (who did it well) for a while, which cemented their reputations and allowed them to become dominant.
    Nathan, fun post…adoption curves, word of mouth, and the inevitable transience of cool…
    Jen

  3. nathan.burke@blogstring.com'
    Nathan

    Thanks for the comments.
    Rodrigo,
    I agree that there are services like google that got over their initial coolness and still remain incredibly popular, but I think you’re right: it’s because they are incredibly useful. I’m not sure the same applies to the social network du jour. Search is such a fundamental necessity online that having the best product (coupled with a dose of cool) will trump simple popularity. You may go to facebook because you heard it was the next big thing, but you’re not doing it out of a defined problem. Search is much different. It’s something you have to do, and it becomes a habit.
    Thanks again!

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