“Interesting, but of no commercial value”: The problem with emerging social media tools: A Saturday Evening Post

I can remember a time when people thought e-mail was a complete waste of time. I can remember a time when spreadsheets and storyboarding software were similarly disdained. In fact, I can even remember a time when no senior executive would be seen dead near a computer. You know something? It wasn’t that long ago, maybe 20 years ago?


[Bob Frankston and Dan Bricklin, the co-inventors of Visicalc, at an Indian meal recently in Cambridge, MA]

I can remember a time when people thought the internet was a complete waste of time. When browsers had no future, when search engines were nothing more than toys. It wasn’t that long ago that Google was something that a few people played with, and the rest thought…. that they were wasting time. I can remember a time when people thought eBay was a plaything, someplace that people went….to waste time. I can even remember a time when packages marked Amazon or Fedex were unheard-of in enterprise mail trolleys. You know something? It wasn’t that long ago, maybe 10 years ago.

I can remember a time when people thought social media, software and networks were a complete waste of time. When Facebookers were fools, Twitterers were twits, when even blogs and wikis and IM were viewed with deep suspicion, when everyone thought that the people who were using them…..were wasting time. You know something? It wasn’t that long ago. Maybe it’s still happening now.

I can remember a time when people thought Cluetrain was a joke, that the authors should have stayed in the Sixties and kept their mouths shut. That reading Cluetrain (and the books that followed it) was a complete waste of time.

[Doc Searls, David Weinberger and Chris Locke, caught wasting time at Defrag in Denver a couple of months ago.]

Wasting time on things that have no commercial value. I know I’ve written about it before, but I feel there is a point still to be made. Is it a new point? Perhaps not. Let me remind you of some of the things that have been said — said by powerful and important people — in the last century or so:

“Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” –Marechal Ferdinand Foch
“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” –David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” --H.M. “Harry” Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” –Western Union internal memo, 1876.

“But what … is it good for?” –Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.

“The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.” –A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found FedEx.)

[My thanks to this site run by JD Paul for conveniently collecting a bunch of such sayings].


Let me illustrate something. The figures above represent a Mobius strip (on the top), a Klein Surface (in the bottom left) and a Fibonacci Sequence (on the bottom right). While all three concepts are intriguing from a theoretical viewpoint (especially to amateur mathematicians), the practical application of those concepts has always fascinated me. When I learnt that people had figured out that conveyor belts should be designed on Mobius strip principles (in order to even out the wear and tear) my heart sang. When I learnt that Fibonacci sequences could be used to predict the number of leaves on a tree, the number of branches on a tree, or even the growth of rabbit populations, I was spellbound. In fact, when I was a young insomniac, I used to count sheep in Fibonacci just for the hell of it, and landed up staying awake enjoying the counting! Now, while I haven’t yet heard of good “commercial” uses of a Klein Surface, I remain intrigued. Intrigued enough to read the Wikipedia entry while writing this, and delighting in finding out that what I used to refer to as a Klein Bottle is actually a misnomer, it was meant to be a Klein Surface and got corrupted, in the original German, from flache to flasche. Intrigued enough to be willing to be delighted as and when I find out that someone has found a sensible use for the Klein Surface.

I am not a fan of technology for technology’s sake; while I am curious about many things, I am not suddenly recommending that knowledge-worker businesses start large-scale experimentation with emerging tools. But. And it’s an important but. That does not mean we do not experiment at all. So, when I see emergent tools with the following characteristics, I get very interested:

Low barriers to entry, in investment costs, running costs and prerequisite skills
Low TCO, open architecture, no proprietary lock-ins, either overt or covert
Evidence of take-up by Generation M
Emergence of a community of participation in an open multisided marketplace around the product or service

The *possibility* that knowledge work can become more effective and more efficient, not just in the enterprise, but in health, education and welfare. Globally

These are the things I see when I write about Facebook or about Twitter. When I play with YouTube or Flickr. When I play around with Dopplr or Vodpod or BlogFriends or School Of Everything. I see possibilities. Possibilities of improving our lives. Possibilities that excite me.

That’s why I get really interested when I see fire departments using Twitter. Manufacturing concerns using YouTube. [My thanks to Brian Humphrey for the LAFD Twitter info, and to Alan Buxton for pointing me towards MFGX. See, I don’t just read comments, I follow trails to see what the commenter’s blog is about, and often branch off from there, meandering, serendipitously, and learning from it all]


And it’s not just to admire from afar. I have been rejoicing in watching people where I work use the web first, that is so refreshing. When I ask for a demo of something I get a YouTube link, when I ask for an explanation of something I get a Flickr link. Web first. As long as it’s open, global, real-time. Web first.

An aside: I remember a time when I used to play a lot of contract bridge; there was a bunch of us who met regularly, my father would join us every now and then, and we learnt a lot. Me and my friends, we revelled in sophisticated modern bidding conventions, based around a modified Precision with a strong “phony” club, four-card majors, Stayman, weak twos in the majors, a splinter “multi” two diamonds, that kind of thing. And we spent a long time getting very precise messages to our partners using these sophisticated techniques. One day we were taken apart by some of our younger friends, who had hit upon a far better system. They just showed their cards to each other, quietly, while we were pontificating on our complex bids. Illegal, but highly effective.

Using YouTube or Flickr is a bit like that; instead of the complexity and sophistication underlying Powerpoint, you just take a photograph or a video and post it. If the goal is excellence in communication, we should bear it in mind when we work in design.

That’s why I enjoyed using RippleRap at Le Web. Of course I was biased; after all, the tools had been built by colleagues of mine; but I would have used it even if someone else had built it, because it fulfilled the “webness” test. And that’s important. [What’s RippleRap? I wanted to use TiddlyWiki as a collaborative presentation tool, a place where I could put up brief text and graphics and allow people in the audience to make notes while I spoke, and, more importantly, to share the notes they made. I’m really grateful to the team as to how quickly they came up with something that worked, and worked well. So here’s a screenshot of RippleRap below:


It’s not just the Osmosoft team that think like this; it’s been very encouraging to see “commercial” uses of YouTube, as evinced by the number of instructional videos out there, and for that matter promotional ones as well, as shown below:


Some of these issues take me back quite a few years: it was probably 2004 when I first read that IBM were the single biggest “user” of eBay. Today, for example, you can go to eBay to learn about IBM’s leasing and financing options. Web first. [There was a time when I used to tell people that IBM had a System 38 series because they had at least 37 other proprietary architectures. How they’ve changed. Amazing.]


My apologies for the rambling nature of this post, it gets that way sometimes. Where am I going with all this? It’s simple. There are many people who criticise social media tools because they perceive them as ways to waste time; these criticisms in turn enter the consciousness of large enterprises and form part of enterprise immune systems, ably and effectively shutting out the pioneers who are seeking to derive value from the tools.

We haven’t figured out a way to solve the problem of low knowledge worker productivity. [Sometimes, I get the feeling we spend more time trying to figure out how to measure knowledge worker productivity, rather than concentrate on raising productivity levels. We spend more time mutating benchmarks to our purposes, throwing away the opportunity to make quantum improvements as a result. In fact that’s my First Law of Benchmarks: If gains are so low that you need benchmarks to prove the existence of the gains, they’re probably not worth having in the first place.

While the competition was busy protecting proprietary architectures, IBM transformed itself around Linux and services. And the competition sank without trace. The same thing is about to happen, with social media tools. A few companies will become big winners, the rest will disappear without trace, to be replaced by a new order. When I see Facebook, I see Bloomberg. There’s a new “buy side” in a new set of digital markets, and they’re setting the rules. Markets where information is liquid. And digital.


As William Gibson said, the future’s here, it’s just unevenly distributed. That description is apt when applied to the implementation and take-up of social media tools. So when you next decide all this is a waste of time, think IBM, think Bloomberg, think eBay, think Google, think Amazon. Or even think Goldman Sachs. Think why Goldman Sachs has a very high percentage of employees using Facebook. Goldman Sachs, wasting time? You better believe it. And making money while they do it.

21 thoughts on ““Interesting, but of no commercial value”: The problem with emerging social media tools: A Saturday Evening Post”

  1. Great post. Appreciate the contextual nature of the post and the possibilities that exist with all these new technological advances and tools. Reminds me of the remark that Tim O’Reilly made when I interviewed him. He said something like many new ideas start off as a hobby, but then grow and become very powerful ideas.

    The one thing that has bothered me a lot ever since I got hooked to PCs and the web many years ago is the productivity part of it and how to manage your time when you discover, play around and use these new tools? In your post you clearly highlight the “consumer delight” of discovering new features etc, but what happens when that interest or delight declines? We then prowl around for new tools to delight and keep us engaged. I suspect that is what big companies that you mentioned in your post have realized and don’t put a stop it with their employees. It is also a great way for these companies to discover new and powerful ways to unearth information about themselves and connect with their constituents.

    I would be curious to see what you have to say about Indian corporations and companies and the adoption of these social tools? The examples you have cited in your post are most American companies.


    kamla bhatt

  2. A really ‘good read’ post.
    Of course, you are highly selective in your choice of both quotes and ‘things that people thought would never work’ – but did. I could concoct a long list of ‘things people thought would work’ – but didn’t.
    I therefore find it entirely consistent for me to continue to write about the importance of social & business networking and the advent of ‘personal outsourcing’ whilst, at the same time, writing articles entitled “Are Twitters Twits?.

  3. kamla got me reflecting upon indian companies … i would think that the big ones, biocon, wipro, tata, infosys, etc, are no different than anywhere else, nothing indian about them, except the getting to work and the power outages and the regulations they deal with that toughens them..

    but the next level down, where lying is so common, customer service is non-existence, covering your ass is the main thing you do at work, and if i am going there i hope i can find a woman, because she generally will do the job correctly, all this technology is threatening

    heck, even banks go on strike to protest computerization, that would mean the loan officer cannot takes his 15 percent

    indian values are a curious mix

    and twitters can indeed be twits… lol

    written on my laptop, connect via reliance usb moden at about 6 KBPS, this is bits, mind you, and of course reliance advertises it at 155

  4. That is a really beautiful posting. Very nice to start out with the Visicalc guys. I’ve been in software since 1983 and always was an early adopter, using “stuff” at the bleeding edge of technology. You are absolutely spot on: at first these new technologies are being ridiculed by “the establishment” – and then they take over the world.
    It will be my great pleasure to link to this post.

  5. Great post! I especially liked the last paragraph–“The future’s here, it’s just unevenly distributed,” and “Goldman Sachs, wasting time? You better believe it. And making money while they do it.”


    Your post got me excited about the present, the future, and a few opportunities that I’m looking at right now. And furthermore, it made me want to pull out that book about string theory again…

  6. Our local Rhode Island School of Design recently swiped John Maeda from MIT to be their new president. He almost immediately started a private blog with the RISD community and Maeda recently started posting at a public blog. One of the posts is from Davos.

    Obviously, a complete waste. I’m frankly a little appalled at what BT lets you get away with, JP ;-)

    And BTW, you deserve more than one weekend a week. Two classics. Thanks.

  7. So true, Tim. I still remember the day in 1999 when I followed a set of links that changed my career. I had been getting Jake Nielsen’s Alertbox columns for a while when this one showed up about user-focused Internet architecture. A lot of it, in retrospect, sounds like web 2. There’s a link at the bottom to a Dave Winer piece describing his new authoring platform called Manila that included the feature Edit this Page. And at the bottom of that article was a link to a website called “>Cluetrain.

    I’ve been working to help orgs and cos converse with markets ever since.

    Talk about a reward for reading to the end!

  8. Thanks JP – this is a wonderful post, that just happens to nail down all the various issues that seem to be floating around in my head today :)

Let me know what you think