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Early adopters driving Web 2.0 explosion

Today's Web 2.0 companies would be nowhere without early adopters. They're the ones who will Twitter all day, post to Facebook all night. But are they the consumers that companies ultimately need to please?
Image: iphone
God bless the early adopters — the technology industry would be nowhere without them. But they're very different than the general consumer. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file

You don’t need to spend much time in Silicon Valley these days to see the symptoms of Internet Bubble 2.0. New start-ups are everywhere, most of them obscure variants on social networking or media-sharing, with even more obscure names and business plans that generally conclude: once we’re really big, somehow the money will roll in. (Or better, some big media company will buy us before we have to worry about making a profit.)

It’s different than Bubble 1.0, however, in one important way. The first bubble was driven by Wall Street analysts, touting initial public offerings, who predicted vast profits to come (and inflated share prices) on the basis of not much more than pure optimism. This bubble, however, is truly a Web 2.0 phenomenon—driven by the enthusiasm of Internet users themselves. Or, more specifically, the enthusiasm of early adopters—for it’s now clear that the Internet has become the early adopters’ ultimate paradise. 

The phrase “early adopter” was coined by Everett Rogers in his 1962 book, "Diffusion of InnovationsRogers said that new technology enters the marketplace in a bell-shaped curve, with a small number of people buying at the beginning, the majority purchasing somewhat later, and another minority waiting until they’re the last on the block. According to Rogers, 13.5 percent of buyers are these early adopters—the ones who dependably embrace new technology before anyone else.

And God bless early adopters — the technology industry would be nowhere without them.  My first experience with an early adopter was when I was publishing CD-ROMs at Newsweek magazine. It was the pre-Internet era where another investment bubble had inflated over the belief that CD-ROMs would be the next big medium. Our CD-ROMs were in fact very cool, but they were also quite difficult to get running on that era’s personal computers. But then everyone’s CD-ROMs were hard to install, so off to retail they went. 

I was soon horrified to receive an email from one of our first customers that described in great detail the utter nightmare he had experienced trying to get our CD-ROM to play on his computer. Over the course of a full week, he’d tried this trick and that trick, put on new software, rewritten parts of his operating system, even bought and installed more memory for his computer—only to be frustrated again and again.

Midway through the email I was certain we’d be getting off easily if he just asked for his money back. More likely he was going to sue us for emotional pain and suffering, or come to New York and drive a stake through my heart. But then, his email continued, after several more complicated technologic hat tricks, somehow he got the CD-ROM to run and he was able to see the content. “And so I’m writing to tell you,” he said, “that I LOVE YOUR PRODUCT!  When is the next one coming out?”

I was greatly relieved. We continued to ship CD-ROMs.  And the entire business soon sank like a stone.

Early adopters, at a bit more than 10 percent of the market — and very fickle as well— are not enough to keep a business running. In fact, early adopters are very different than the general consumer: for them, the excitement of being the first on the block outweighs the bugs, flaws and general inconvenience of new technology. Early adopters are the ones willing to camp out overnight in order to spend hundreds of dollars more for a device than it will cost a few months down the road. So there are a few bugs? Who cares?

Camping out in line suggests another key factor that distinguishes the early adopter from the larger population: extra spare time. Consider the much-touted virtual community Second Life.  When it first gained national attention last year, new participants were signing up at a phenomenal rate. Some experts predicted that soon we’d all have avatars in Second Life where we’d buy virtual goods, go to virtual concerts, even buy virtual newspapers to read virtual news.

As it turned out, Second Life hasn’t become a mass-market phenomenon. Early adopters loved it, but mainstream customers found it time-consuming and baffling. Yet the news stories, based on the behavior of early adopters, made it sound like virtual living was just around the corner. More than a few big companies spent big dollars to develop stores, hotels and offices in what has turned out to be less than a bustling metropolis. 

And that may well be the case with many of the Web 2.0 startups that are currently pulling investment dollars in Silicon Valley. There’s a saying among venture capitalists: your most important customer is the 10,001st customer—because there are 10,000 customers who will buy anything. And that’s still more the case for early adopters in the Web 2.0 world: they don’t even have to buy anything.  All they need to do is register and then tinker to their heart’s content, whether that’s broadcasting each moment of their lives on Twitter or accumulating two thousand friends on Facebook or editing entries on Wikipedia or voting obsessively on Digg. 

That’s not to say that social networking and media sharing aren’t incredibly important parts of how we will use the Internet in the future. But it’s worth keeping in mind that while early adopters get new technology rolling, they may not reflect the wants and needs of the average consumer. The big Web 2.0 winners will be the ones who recognize that difference and aren’t afraid to adapt their products for a broader audience. Of course, the early adopters can be depended on to complain about the changes — but by then they’ll already be moving on to the next big thing anyway. 

And speaking of next things: This marks my seventh year of writing this column, and I’m going to take a break now. But I want to thank all my readers for the fascinating discussions we’ve had over these past years. That’s one aspect of new media technology that I’ve never had doubts about: the ability to connect directly with readers. And so I’m sure that we’ll be talking again soon — somewhere out there in the future.