The strange culture of social technology, and its makers

In the past months I have been systematically scoping out social media businesses, startups, services, agencies, and more. It’s what us “freelancers” do &emdash; especially now that the industry has matured. I have a filemaker database of more than 650 companies worth tracking. Along with notes, and various other sundry details.

If I were to rush my way through the database, read company descriptions provided by founders, reviews gleaned from techcrunch, killerstartups.com, etc, I would come away with the impression that these were almost all technology companies. That’s the common narrative arc, the identity by so many efforts in this space. And the professional culture that unites so many of us located in and around the Silicon Valley.

And yet so many of these companies are not technology companies. Not from the perspective of what they promise to better and improve. Not from the perspective of the business opportunity they seek to create or extend. Not, certainly, from the perspective of individual users, clusters of friends, groups, or communities.

If this were the age of the television, perusing local company profiles might read like a directory of television manufacturers, broadcasters, transmitters and relay providers, cable guys and dish installers. A Detroit of post-industrial industry, risen out of the early and pioneering PC and software years to mature through database, operating system, hardware, software and finally internet business eras. One epoch after another of technological innovation and business value creation.

And yet from the user’s perspective, very little of this matters. Sure, it may matter (a lot, even) to local pundits and industry experts &emdash; because this is our narrative. But the audience and marketplace of people expected to adopt and embrace this stuff couldn’t care less about funding rounds, acquisitions, and other milestones on the roadmap of entrepreneurial success.

Technology’s manufacture is transparent to the user. It neither gets in the way nor attracts attention to itself. We’ve always designed to that principle: the user experience should not have to attend to interactions with the technology itself.

Which allows me to return to my initial impressions, having sampled a large number of startup and social media profiles and reviews: where is the social? Or to back up, where is the appreciation for utility and value, as well as for interaction and social relations? Where are the descriptions and insights into what users want; how users behave; how user experiences are improved; how social outcomes are shaped and designed?

We are, after all, in the entertainment industry now. (And it is no accident that much of the Silicon Valley’s growth now takes place in New York and Los Angeles, where the content and advertising people are). Social media are an extension of the mass media &emdash; are just another medium. Granted, a medium in which content is contributed; distribution is free and occurs by means of communication; and interactivity creates worlds of possibilities.

Those of us here in Bay Area startups and social companies are creating content &emdash; content of experience. We’re creating entertainment &emdash; pleasure of experience. We’re creating routines and habits and reshaping relationships &emdash; surfacing and enabling what used to be tacit and invisible. We’re bundling information together with actionables to change consumer habits &emdash; granting power to consumers and forcing transparencies upon brands and their advertising.

All these things we do, and yet we self-identify as technology. This is not technology. These are not technical problems, solved by means of technical solutions. We make the infrastructure of experiences. We don’t make guns &emdash; we make the pain and strategy and the fear and the hope and the charge and the sniping. We don’t make engines, wheels, dashboards, and back seats &emdash; we make the driving, the getting there, the waiting in traffic and the weaving and rear-ending and making out at the town’s last drive in.

So where are the descriptions of value, of utility, experience, of individual, group, social, and public habits of use and practice? Do we not have the language for it? Is this just how we identify with what we are doing? Is it too difficult to see that we’re not making TV’s but creating shows? Do we lack confidence in what our “technologies” are for? What if we suspect that only a small number of us will ever take to this stuff &emdash; is that why we prefer to describe what our stuff does rather than what people do with our stuff?

Once in a while, I come across a great company description. I get a sense for what the company’s trying to do, with, through, and for its people (users). Most of the time I read about features, about faster, bigger, wider, broader, narrower, more targeted &emdash; in short I read about the increments on a measure who’s metric isn’t ever defined. Incremental improvements towards what end? Addressing what individual or social problem or need? Enhancing what essential experience of relation, communication, information sharing, or, what?

If I can’t see it, and I’ve been in this since the beginning, and I’m no fool, it’s not there. Perhaps it could be there &emdash; but hasn’t yet been identified and named. Most of the time it’s just not there. It is easier to name an incremental improvement to an existing technical practice than to capture the social benefits resulting from its use.

None of this need be a problem, if it weren’t for the fact that we all tend to the nerdy end of the spectrum, personality wise. We are heavy users of our own product (never a good idea &emdash; but in our case, less self-harming). We make what we want in order to compete against those very similar to us. We increment based on feedback that we obtain from people who use our products &emdash; aware, or not, that the feedback can only possibly tell us about what we built, and not what we could have built.

We eagerly engage in what is an ever-unfolding process of co-evolution undertaken by a great milieu of companies building up component parts to a shared set of experiences &emdash; of media, information, relationships, time, action, and so much more. And yet I have to say that it is entirely possible that behind all of these individual startup efforts is but a myth that this is good, smart, better, and more useful. And that these technical or design attributes naturally go hand in hand with social and cultural practices &emdash; relationships, friendships, being together, relating to and through and with, having an identity, communicating and sharing it….

It is in fact it is cultural and social change that leads technology. Technologies succeed or fail to the degree to which they capture implicit, latent, and ready individual and social needs. Where are these insights? Who has them? Why are they not self evident? I have over 600 companies right here in front of me, and a set of descriptions that reads, altogether, like technical documentation authored by a marketer.

But I just spent two months off social media and out in the world of “normals” in order to re-calibrate my perspectives and reset and re-test my notions. A necessary break, in hindsight, if only for the reason that we are an over-amplified bunch whose work is the very medium in which we conduct our work.

So I’m not seeing it &emdash; not for many of the companies in this database. I see potential, I see direction, and I see increments. But for the full measure of things, I use a bigger metric. And by its measure, we’re thinking too small.

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