The Jig Is Up: Time to Get Past Facebook and Invent a New Future

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After five years pursuing the social-local-mobile dream, we need a fresh paradigm for technology startups.

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Finnish teenagers performing digital ennui in 1996 2006. Reuters.

We're there. The future that visionaries imagined in the late 1990s of phones in our pockets and high-speed Internet in the air: Well, we're living in it.

"The third generation of data and voice communications -- the convergence of mobile phones and the Internet, high-speed wireless data access, intelligent networks, and pervasive computing -- will shape how we work, shop, pay bills, flirt, keep appointments, conduct wars, keep up with our children, and write poetry in the next century."

That's Steve Silberman reporting for Wired in 1999, which was 13 years ago, if you're keeping count. He was right, and his prediction proved correct before this century even reached its teens. Indeed, half of tech media is devoted to precisely how these devices and their always-on connectivity let us do new things, help us forget old things, and otherwise provide humans with as much change as we can handle. 

I can take a photo of a check and deposit it in my bank account, then turn around and find a new book through a Twitter link and buy it, all while being surveilled by a drone in Afghanistan and keeping track of how many steps I've walked.

The question is, as it has always been: now what?

Decades ago, the answer was, "Build the Internet." Fifteen years ago, it was, "Build the Web." Five years ago, the answers were probably, "Build the social network" or "Build the mobile web." And it was in around that time in 2007 that Facebook emerged as the social networking leader, Twitter got known at SXSW, and we saw the release of the first Kindle and the first iPhone. There are a lot of new phones that look like the iPhone, plenty of e-readers that look like the Kindle, and countless social networks that look like Facebook and Twitter. In other words, we can cross that task off the list. It happened.

What we've seen since have been evolutionary improvements on the patterns established five years ago. The platforms that have seemed hot in the last couple of years -- Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest -- add a bit of design or mobile intelligence to the established ways of thinking. The most exciting thing to come along in the consumer space between then and now is the iPad. But despite its glorious screen and extended battery life, it really is a scaled up iPhone that offers developers more space and speed to do roughly the same things they were doing before. The top apps for the iPad look startlingly similar the top apps for the iPhone: casual games, social networking, light productivity software.

For at least five years, we've been working with the same operating logic in the consumer technology game. This is what it looks like:

There will be ratings and photos and a network of friends imported, borrowed, or stolen from one of the big social networks. There will be an emphasis on connections between people, things, and places. That is to say, the software you run on your phone will try to get you to help it understand what and who you care about out there in the world. Because all that stuff can be transmuted into valuable information for advertisers.

That paradigm has run its course. It's not quite over yet, but I think we're into the mobile social fin de siècle.


PARADIGM LOST

It slipped into parody late last year with the hypothetical app, Jotly, which allowed you to "rate everything" from the ice cubes in your drink to the fire hydrant you saw on the street. The fake promo video perfectly nailed everything about the herd mentality among startups. Its creator told me to watch for "the color blue, rounded corners, SoLoMo [SocialLocalMobile], ratings, points, free iPads, ridiculous name (complete with random adverbing via 'ly'), overpromising, private beta, giant buttons, 'friction-less' sign up, no clear purpose, and of course a promo video."

And then, the hilarious parody ate itself and my tears of laughter turned to sadness when the people behind the joke actually released Jotly as a real, live app.

That's the microversion of the state of affairs. Here's the macro version. Thousands of startups are doing almost exactly the same thing, minor variations on a theme. Tech journalists report endlessly on the same handful of well-established companies. Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft's dominate pieces of the web, and they don't appear to be in shaky positions. Good, long-time tech journalists like Om Malik are exhausted. He recently posted this to his blog after much ink was spilled over who Twitter hired as a public relations person:

Sure, these are some great people and everyone including me is happy for their new gigs and future success. But when I read these posts [I] often wonder to myself, have we run out of things to say and write that actually are about technology and the companies behind them? Or do we feel compelled to fill the white space between what matters? Sort of like talk radio?

There have been three big innovation narratives in the last few years that complicate, but don't invalidate, my thesis. The first -- The Rise of the Cloud -- was essentially a rebranding of having data on the Internet, which is, well ... what the Internet has always been about. Though I think it has made the lives of some IT managers easier and I do like Rdio. The second, Big Data, has lots of potential applications. But, as Tim Berners-Lee noted today, the people benefiting from more sophisticated machine learning techniques are the people buying consumer data, not the consumers themselves. How many Big Data startups might help people see their lives in different ways? Perhaps the personal genomics companies, but so far, they've kept their efforts focused quite narrowly. And third, we have the daily deal phenomenon. Groupon and its 600 clones may or may not be good companies, but they are barely technology companies. Really, they look like retail sales operations with tons of sales people and marketing expenses.

I also want to note that there are plenty of ambitious startups in energy, healthcare, and education, areas that sorely need innovation. But fascinating technology startups, companies who want to allow regular people to do new stuff in their daily lives? Few and far between. Take a look at Paul Graham's ideas for frighteningly ambitious startups. Now take a look at the last 30 or so startups on Techcrunch. Where are the people thinking big? What I see is people filling ever-smaller niches in this "ecosystem" or that "ecosystem."


FROM FACEBOOK TO FACEBOOK CLONES

Certainly, some of the blame for tech startup me-tooism is just the tendency of startups to cluster around ideas that seem to be working. Social networks? Here's 500! Mobile social plays? Here's another 500! Social discovery apps? Behold 1000! Perhaps that's inevitable as dumb money chases chases smart money chasing some Russian kid who just made a site on which men tended to flash their genitals at web cameras.

But I think the problems go deeper. I don't think Silicon Valley and all the other alleys and silicon places are out of ideas. But I do think that we've reached a point in this technology cycle where the old thing has run its course. I think the hardware, cellular bandwidth, and the business model of this tottering tower of technology are pushing companies to play on one small corner of a huge field.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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