The year of the backlash

Neon sign in my neighborhood

<Image by Frippy>

This is hardly a marvel of prophecy, but bear with me…

The signs are that this year will be one marked by something of a backlash against social media/ web 2.0/ any internet stuff. I don't mean from the traditional media, who've always been suspicious, but from people who know what they're talking about and have been advocates. In other words, increasingly 'us lot' will be declaring that this stuff is peripheral, uncool, over- rated, etc.

I think this will often been focused on a particular technology, and Twitter will be the main candidate this year. I've already seen several people I know abandon it. But increasingly it reflects a disappointment that technology hasn't delivered on its promises, and that as it becomes incorporated into everyday life it begins to look like all the stuff it was meant to replace. Hey, e-mail was revolutionary once. This cycle of attitudes towards technology is neatly captured in the Gartner Hype cycle, which, while not founded in deep research, captures instinctively what many of us feel about technology.

The other thing to bear in mind is that as technology matures, so does the criticism that goes along with it. This moves from the tabloid 'it's evil' attitude to a more reasoned approach. I disagree with a lot of what Lanier says in You Are Not A Gadget (that's another post), but I agree when he says technology criticism should not be left to Luddites (and neither should technology engagement be left to the evangelists). So part of what we will see growing this year is smart people bringing their intellectual capacity to bear on their experience with technology.

I would caution though that many of us who are prone to technology enthusiasm are also guilty of excessive criticism (I include myself in this). Maybe it's a personality thing for early adopters. My point is we should be wary of going to extremes. To return to my earlier example, the fact that Twitter won't be the tool that brings down totalitarian regimes, or that you found yourself using it too much, or that it is often trivial does not mean it is therefore useless. I think we should avoid these kind of binary distinctions: it's a revolutionary force or it's pointless. I know that, for instance, my use of Twitter has changed from a compulsion to tweet at all times, to a much more regulated, measured use. I'll go days without using it, but on other days will dip in continuously and find it entertaining, useful, engaging. And that's the same for all of it – we tend to over-indulge and then find their real value as they settle into our daily lives.

I think a healthy caution has crept into our reaction to technology now: Buzz, Ping, Wave, Quora – all of these have been met with an appropriate questioning attitude and not a blind acceptance of the next big thing. But we should also not become adverse to what can be done using tools with a little imagination – ds106 radio is a recent example of this. The technology isn't particularly complex (well, it would be beyond me, but for someone like Grant it's probably not too complex), but when you make it easy enough and get the right mix of people together, magic happens.

So I'm starting the backlash against the backlash early – YouTube, Flickr, Wikipedia, Twitter – these things are amazing. They're just not as amazing as we first thought, or rather, we're just beginning to find the ways in which they will be amazing.


  1. Mark Power says:

    Yeah, I can see where you’re coming from with this. My Twitter usage has changed in a similar way to yours. Nowadays, some mornings it’s not even the first thing I check anymore! 😉
    As far as the backlash is concerned. Well, we’re seeing one happen around the area of “social networking stops you from really interacting with real people”, etc… as more books are published telling us all how it’s changing our brains and killing traditional family life.
    On the ‘backlash’ from us everyday users and tech workers…well…for me, I think part of my growing cynicism comes from the whole thing just being in our faces…All. The. Bloody. Time. The Facebook film, constant references to the Twitter Stream on the news programmes and newspapers, massively hyped startups being talked about on any and every tech blog…even new social networking streams that are exactly the same as others but based around what you’re watching on telly.
    I guess that once you’ve gone through the early adopter enthusiasm and experimentation/discovery, then travelled along that Gartner cycle, you get to the point where you suddenly realise just how goddamn noisy it all can be.
    I’ll still try different services out of course. I can’t help myself. And I’ll probably dismiss things quite a bit more readily than I did…in that cynical backlash kinda way. What I’m more and more interested in though is what’s not quite here yet, rather than what is. And tech that’s just about me and my interaction with the environment….rather than my interaction with the crowd.

  2. David White says:

    Anything we can do to reduce the wiggle on the hype-cycle has to be well worth while. I tried to capture the flow of that process in this post For me it’s about the motivations and expectations of the groups that appropriate/use the technology.

  3. Jakob says:

    You know that you can’t stop the hype cycle, right? 😉 There is a reason that the adaptation of new technology follows a predictable pattern.
    Granted, early adopters might be justified in feeling today is different than centuries ago. That is because they are getting even more feedback from the echo chamber they choose to immerse themselves in, be it the dystopian or the utopian exaggeration of technological determinism, than they could get from media under the old sender>receiver paradigm.

  4. Pat Parslow says:

    Although I would agree that Gartner’s Hype Cycle has a lot of similarity, I would argue that the ‘backlash’ effect is actually different to the wave of apathy which hits when the hype stops powering interest. I think the backlash is closely related to society’s natural conservative nature, with objectors to new technology actively trying to dissuade the uptake of this-or-that.
    Having said that, both seem to resemble under-damped second order dynamic systems – it would be great to try to work out ways of bringing a new system into play with critical damping, so the optimum use can be made of it without overshooting and producing wild oscillations.

  5. James Clay says:

    I am seeing a symptom of this backlash from our own community, through people who feel that not only do they need to take a break from a particular social network, but also feel compelled to let everyone on that social network know that they are taking a break.
    It’s as though they need to justify that they need a break to themselves and others and that taking a break is some kind of “superior” thing to do, as though using a social network such as Twitter is not important, is not social, or is a frivolous activity. By taking a break they are saying that I don’t have time for frivolity and I will be doing “serious” things while the rest of you fritter your time away on such a frivolous activity.
    Now don’t get me wrong I have never thought of Twitter as a serious communication medium, but if you don’t find you have the time for Twitter, just stop using it, don’t spend time explaining to everyone else that you are going to stop using it because you are too busy or the stuff you are doing is too important.
    That kind of reaction to Twitter to me is a backlash, as it implies that they have wasted time on Twitter, can’t manage using Twitter in a busy lifestyle and importantly want to let everyone else who will continue to use Twitter is being frivolous and can’t let go.
    Like Martin and Mark, as time has passed the way I use Twitter has changed and continues to change, but the same happened with e-mail, phone calls and even letter writing to an extent.

  6. Martin says:

    @Mark – yes, sometimes I feel as though I should be careful what I wish for. “If only everyone would get twitter it’d be great” I used to cry, and now they do I think “oh shut up about it.” I think the natural reaction then is to move away from it.
    @Dave – I hadn’t seen this post, it’s very good. I think the re-appropriation is actually the interesting phase. Shirky argues similar, in that it is when a technology becomes commonplace that it becomes truly interesting.
    @Pat – I really like the idea of a critical dampener. Part of the approach to get a technology taken up is to hype it up, no-one every wants to build in caution, but the recipient community can perform this function, without being overly skeptical and dismissive of any new tool.
    @James – yes, seen this a lot too, almost as if they are chastising themselves for having believed in it, and then taking it out on the rest of us poor saps who haven’t seen the light. This is exactly the binary reaction I want to see less of.

  7. Sheila MacNeill says:

    Hi Martin
    Agree with James. I was just thinking that the people who are foremost at the backlash are very loud about it. Maybe they threatened when the network gets bigger than them, and their voices aren’t the loudest.

  8. The Mighty Phillipus says:

    Twitter can be useful. But if we look at the gob-shite that people are spewing daily onto Twitter then yes, please let’s have a backlash, a.k.a “Get a fucking life”.

  9. Les Nessman says:

    I am SO fucking fed up with escalators, they lead nowhere but straight to obescity. Ban them. Ban them all. Don’t even get me started about elevators, damn conspiracy by OTIS…

  10. Dkernohan says:

    I no longer believe in the Gartner Hype Cycle. Stuff either works (in that it does something that I find useful or entertaining at that particular moment in time, or lets me be useful/entertaining to others) or doesn’t.
    In fact, the Gartner Hype Cycle backlash starts here 😀

  11. Emmadw says:

    Les, have you been talking to the guy on the floor above me … he’s forever trying to convince us that it’s more environmentally friendly to use the lift … on the grounds that going up (a whole flight!) of stairs uses up energy, so you have to eat more, thus putting excessive demands on the agriculture system!
    By the way, fully agree with James’ points re those who take noisy ‘breaks’!

  12. Jo Badge says:

    I think Dave’s comment about groups and tools is very appropriate. I remember the outrage when @replies were hidden for tweeps you didn’t follow – ‘but how on earth will we grow our networks, what will happen to happenstance discoveries of new people to tweet at?’ we cried. Tweetdeck has a facility where you can turn back time and see everyone’s full tweet stream. I tried this for about 10 minutes and was was nearly sick with dizziness and brain-exploding information over load. Yes, twitter has got noisy now it’s popular and yes that will probably cause a backlash against it from the early adopters, but I think you are right to question this, Martin and call for reasonable approaches to this change. We should not to flounce off in a huff – declaring noisily as we go.
    I’ll be moving into a new social group soon (when I start a primary PGCE, fingers crossed, Gove willing), and I’ve already started to shift my twittersphere to include school teachers and start to talk to them online. This only reflects my ‘real’ shift in meeting and talking to new people in teaching but I know the virtual system well enough to know that I will gain some excellent support and badly needed encouragement and advice online. Perhaps we need to think more carefully about how we manage our social spheres online, now that we can pick our social circle from a much wider range of people with a much broader range of uses of twitter than we imagine could be possible. For me it’s about how to communicate with people, twitter is one way to do that and I certainly won’t be abandoning it any time soon.

  13. I am very excited reach this nice site because this is Granted, early adopters might be justified in feeling today is different than centuries ago. As far as the backlash is concerned. Well, we’re seeing one happen around the area of “social networking stops you from really interacting. I guess that once you’ve gone through the early adopter enthusiasm and experimentation/discovery, I am seeing a symptom of this backlash from our own community. That kind of reaction to Twitter to me is a backlash. Thanks for this good post.

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