14 December 2010

The Death of Utility, Maslow's Hierarchy and the Importance of Belonging and Esteem on the Now Web

I have a confession to make.
When I first saw Twitter I didn't get it.
Actually, not only did I not get it - I though it was a dumb idea doomed to fail.

The thing is that, like most people who are like me, I was looking at new internet and technology businesses in terms of their utility. I was evaluating them to see how they were going to make my life easier.

This makes sense. It's obvious and intuitive and it's the way that I've learned to look at technology in general and the web in particular. And, once upon a time, it was not only accurate but complete.

It's no longer complete or accurate.

To explain this I'm going to use a shortcut that I normally don't like. I'm going to apply a common framework - Maslow's Hierarchy.

If we consider the way that I used to evaluate new technology businesses and products, I was looking for the lowest level of needs satisfaction - I was looking purely for utility. I was looking for clear, obvious and tangible benefits for a user.

This, however, breaks down with many of the new generation of internet companies. These companies do not provide utility value. At all.

And this is a good thing.

Because they're solving higher order needs. A product like Twitter, for example, is squarely in the intersection of Belonging and Esteem (using Maslow's model). Looking at Facebook, the same is true. By using these products we create a feeling of involvement. We attach ourselves to other people and other groups of people. We become part of something. We are not alone. We, to cut to the chase, Belong. And at the same time, people retweet what we say - they favorite our tweets, they like our posts and our photos. The stroke our ego and make us feel like we're valued and appreciated and special. In other words, they build our Esteem.

If you want to understand the addictive nature of some of these new products and services... just step away and think about what you just read. Yeah... it's all tying into a deep and almost atavistic part of the human psyche. It's powerful.

Sure... it's not universal. Many of us don't feel this need. For many of us, there is no resonance. But we're the outliers.

For the rest of the human race... this is a very significant shift in what we expect out of the internet. And this explains why we are willing to give up so much in exchange. This explains why we don't care about privacy. It explains why Twitter downtime is so frustrating and painful - and why we forgive them every time it happens.

It explains not only why I was wrong about Twitter - but how I was wrong.

Looking at this you can see the opportunities for smart entrepreneurs. And believe me, the smart entrepreneurs see this right back!

You want to understand Path? Or Empire Avenue? Or (my employer) OneTrueFan?

I think you should see it now.
I think you should be able to see why game mechanics are so valuable. Why real-time is so important.

And we've got so much more to explore...


At 12:26 PM, Blogger Autodesk said...

Great post, because it focuses on what these services MEAN, rather than on what they DO. And the Mazlow connection is useful, too. Well done.

At 4:54 PM, Blogger graham said...

I want to talk to you more about game mechanics, but meantime...

Your point that we should not forget the less-tangible benefits of Belonging and Esteem makes a lot of sense. And certain folks are indeed apt to overlook these as you say :)

But there's something about the way we distinguish "utility" as a lower order need, from "Belonging" as higher order, that's central to the issue.

It's a category error of what really constitutes utility.

John Stuart Mill thought about utility a lot, and concluded that the "utility" of a thing is proportionate to its contribution to the ultimate good - Happiness. In his definition, Belonging and Esteem are integral components of Happiness.

So if social tools build peoples' Belonging and Esteem, they build Happiness, and this represents utility.

The math looks like this:

building Belonging = building Happiness = utility


building Belonging = utility

If we don't understand this connection, it's easy to think that twitter et al have no "utility".

However, as soon we embrace the expanded definition of utility, the value of many social applications and games hits you right in the face.


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