Is Geek Tech Going Mainstream?

There was a set of map charts on some popular blog this week that showed how ‘geeky’ your web service is. The more its users were centered around silicon valley, the more geeky your web service is.

Of course this is the fear we who invest in leading edge web stuff live with in the back of our minds. That the services we invest in are used by geeks and nobody else

Delicious, one of our first investments, is the prototypical geek service that never went mainstream. And there are plenty more geek oriented web services out there including a lot of our portfolio.

But I’ve been seeing signs that the ‘mainstream’ user is starting to adopt these leading edge web services.

Many of our friends are not geeks. We live in NYC where our social circle consists of a wide range of professions and people. When we go to a dinner party, there’s usually nobody who knows what venture capital is and facebook is the thing their kids use.

But in the past several weeks, I’ve been seeing some signs in our social circle that make me very optimistic. The Gotham Gal and her friends are chatting on their blackberries like they used to chat on the phone. My friend whose a mother of two college age kids in long island is twittering about her daily life. We are getting facebook invites instead of evites.

Some of this comes from our kids. They got their moms into bbm’ing and now the moms are doing it with each other. Same with Facebook. Two years ago, my kids wouldn’t accept my friend request on facebook. Now they are happy to have us in their social net so they can share photos and other stuff with us in the system that they use as their web space.

Some of it is changing news consumtion habits. Following one or more of the olympic twitter feeds is the single best way to keep up with what’s going on in China and I’ve turned a bunch of non twitterers on to it and they love it. 

But I think the single greatest contributor to this ‘mainstreaming’ of web apps, ironically, has to do with the mobile phone. Whether its the iPhone, the Blackberry Curve, or the Nokia N95, mainstream people are carrying around powerful web connected devices in their pockets. And web services that have been constructed in the past three to five years were built with the mobile device in mind and they are being actively used by mainstream users, not just here, but all around the world.

I think this is the single most important thing we investors in web tech need to be watching. Monetization is key, of course, but getting these services across the chasm and into the mainstream is going to make monetization a lot easier.

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Comments (Archived):

  1. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

    Fully agree Fred, as usual.I’ve seen the same phenomenon as you of this mainstreaming of geek tech. A friend of mine, a middle aged writer, is using Facebook to promote his book. I can’t wait for him to twitter. Of course this is really important, I would say even more important than monetization, because once a product or service goes mainstream, that’ll make it easier to monetize, but the other way around is often harder.Incidentally, it’s interesting that you point to Delicious as the prototypical geek service that never went mainstream, since it was a successful exit nevertheless. And on the other hand you’ll have services that are mainstream-oriented from day one and won’t work.

  2. ekan

    You mention the olympics…check out this data from NBC’s coverage, where they break down their exposure by VOD, mobile/wap, online, and regular old TV. Their research chief was “stunned” by the mobile numbers…it supports your argument in this post.

  3. khylek

    People are just beginning to catch on to these two services. More companies are popping up on Facebook (including mine, IfByPhone). We use Twitter as well to keep in touch with people interested in our services. Tying all these together with a services like FriendFeed and/or Disqus is a next step as well.I think I knew Facebook was mainstream when my absolute non-techie wife signed up to keep track of her social net (even though she has no idea what that term means).

  4. Jack Hammer

    Fred, I admire you and your blog. I live in SF, I work “around” technology industry, and I can tell you with confidence that your fears are correct. The amount of blather here about things like Facebook, Friendfeed, Twitter, etc, is comical. These will barely make a ding in people’s lives. (Now they may get acquired and enable the exits of you and your friends, but that is another matter.)People in this game are kidding themselves. Very, very little will cross into the mainstream. And barriers of entry will be low. The 40 year old parent using facebook now might use something else in 2 years; they’re on because of one feature, not the community. There is no loyalty. What does Facebook provide that people really NEED? Nothing. They’ll switch at the drop of a hat.People in this bubble have no idea at all how regular folks live their lives. Yes, they all share a “geek” mindset, but I’d expand the description a little to an early-adopter//obsessive college student mindset. It’s “insider think,” it’s class-centric; it’s devoid of recognition of the basic needs and difficulties of 99% of the population.

    1. fredwilson

      the reason i wrote this post is because i am seeing signs in my personal life which indicates the opposite is true

      1. Erik Schwartz

        So the real question is whether or not your personal life is a good proxy for mainstream America.Are smartphones even 5% of the US mobile market yet?Apple recently said that the 3 million iPhones they sold in the US were 25% of the US smartphone market. That would put the whole US smartphone market at about 12 million units (~4.5% of the US mobile marketplace)Related question: What percentage of smartphones are paid for by consumers and what percentage are paid for by employers?

        1. Jack Hammer

          “whether or not your personal life is a good proxy for mainstream America.”That’s my point exactly. My experience with tech industry folks is that they are not remotely like most people, and have no idea about how regular people with moderate incomes live their lives.Some things will change. People will text message to save on a voice mail or a short call….you’ll see that expanding. But this is not a proxy for all of fancy mobile apps, web 2.0, 3.0, X.0……..

          1. NICCAI

            I won’t argue against that many of the services we use are class or geek-centric, but I agree with Fred in that the divide is closing. And, I think Facebook is a major player in that. My wife is a techie of sorts, but generally isn’t “after hours.” But, Facebook has engaged her as of late. First it was to connect with her kids, but next it was to connect with old friends. Yesterday, I saw a smile on her face that was priceless, because a very old friend had reminded her of a “club” they had as very young kids. Facebook and many new web services allow you to connect (which if I’m not mistaken was the phone’s big selling point). The difference is our friends and family are no longer down the street, around the corner or across town. They are across the country, overseas, or strangely a lot closer than we ever imagined.As this post states, it isn’t here, but the crossing is near. Penetration is happening, and the bridge that takes it mainstream will be the mobile. I’ll add that the next generation won’t know life without these connections, so penetration is inevitable.

      2. zackmansfield

        I’ve noticed some of the exact same “signs” in personal life – and I’m 26 and in a different “real world” social circle and stage of life.Another interesting sidebar conversation is the continued acceleration of segmentation within the mainstream as these technologies begin to become part of popular culture. What I mean is this – I’m 26 and graduated from college just before Facebook came onto the scene. My sister, who is 3 years younger, was right in the middle of the opening surge, and quickly became an avid user. While she and many of her friends are still active facebook users (and could potentially become even more active users as additional features are added), the crowd that is 1-2 years younger has an even more pervasive attachment to facebook – they do all their messaging through there, status updates, pictures etc. With high school age kids it is THE thing they do – it is their life.The same idea can be seen in forms of communication. Many 30+ year old adults are just beginning to understand text messaging (and other forms such as bberry messaging). For 25-30 it’s a very large part of total communication. For 20 and under, it’s a massive portion of the pie.The acceleration continues, and as services become more mainstream, it will only be magnified and noticeable. While Twitter is still relatively “techie” at this point in time, I think it’s not far from taking off as mainstream for the college and younger crowd. It’s fascinating stuff to watch.

  5. Christopher Harley

    For someone like me, who works as a cabdriver, these budding technologies have enabled me to introduce myself to more prospective customers due to my monitoring of Twitter streams that mention visits to my city. If I encounter someone who needs my services, I direct them to my page where they can access audio and video snips describing myself and my business. The real boost to my way of doing business will come when people realize they can use a service like Loopt not only to find me, relative to their pickup point, but also peruse whatever lifestreaming channels I’m associated with. To some that may seem unnecessary but to me it’s a meaningful endeavor showing that I’m worth your consideration.

  6. jon

    Would you say Delicious did not went mainstream because kids don´t use it or because they don´t have a compelling mobile offering? If so, what would you suggest they should do now to go mainstream? perhaps was something else? I for want think of delicious like a do about Wikipedia our YouTube : services where few will contribute generating content but many could benefit by browsing over it.

  7. peteonrails

    I think that any time geeks do something with tech, it trickles out to the mainstream years later as it gets refined.Geeks had modems in the 1980s and dialed up BBSes. Who doesn’t use the internet today?Geeks rushed out and bought the Apple Newton and the first Palm device. Now everyone wants an iPhone 3G. (Ok: not everyone. But a lot of people). Geeks all had personal websites 15 years ago where they posted pictures of their geeky friends and family. Now it’s easier than ever to run a blog where you post nothing but pictures of what you ate today.I think geeks are part of the process of taking a technology product mainstream. They are early to adopt, honest and vocal about their product feedback, and will beat the crap out of your product so you can eventually reach the masses with it.Disqus, Loopt, FriendFeed, and the rest may be stuck with the geeks for now, but some will ultimately figure out how to provide utility to the mainstream and go gangbusters.But you can’t cross the chasm without your early adopters.

    1. fredwilson

      Right on

  8. Darren Herman

    I would say that this all comes down to timing and patience…. ultimately adoption. Our wives use text messaging and blackberries instead of phones. Facebook invites instead of Evites. While it’s hard to predict what will become adopted by a large group of people, the “mainstream” are becoming tech-savvy and have a larger appetite these days than previously regarding the adoption of technology into their lives.Also, as people who were born around personal technology grow older, the adoption cycle will become shorter (potentially) as they are natives.

  9. UltimateFootballNetwork

    Fred,While I agree that this is the single most important issue for investors (and entrepreneurs expecting adoption) I would disagree with your conclusion based on my own data points. Being that we are in “wedding season” and I’m 32, I’ve had a chance to catch up with old friends on 3 of the last 5 weekends and I’ve gone out of my way to ask everyone I could if they were aware of certain web services.All were “white collar”-types who used Blackberrys/iPhones and considered themselves “internet savvy”, yet not a one of them had ever heard of Digg, Twitter or Friendfeed. One person told me that they had “heard of” Digg and Twitter but had no idea what they are. Facebook was the only one that seemed to have crossed over to the mainstream and more than a few folks I talked to were still reluctant to use it.Perhaps these folks haven’t been influenced by their children yet. Either way, I don’t think we’re quite there.

    1. fredwilson

      This is a good discussion. We all have anecdotal data points. If I rely just on mine, I could head faked. But if we get enough people weighing in, we’ll see a bigger and better picture of where we are

      1. UltimateFootballNetwork

        I agree that this is a good discussion and all of us need more data points. I’ve been doing some early product testing in the social news space and have been shocked at the number of people who can’t identify Digg or “social news”.This discussion is an extension of Josh Koppelman’s old post on the “Techcrunch 50,000”. It’s now the “Techcrunch 1M” but nonetheless it’s still on the wrong side of the chasm and there is no doubt that the 24-hour cycle of social media has created an “echo chamber”.

    2. dannyallenjr

      I think that a subset of the geeks is the blogger geeks, kind of an uber geek. I live and work with geeks and people who have iPhones and Blackberries and such, but some of the things that the blogger geeks have adopted and loved and written about, Twitter being a prime example, are not necessary and even annoying to the regular geek set.I think we have to be careful of being in the echo chamber of the geek blogosphere. I know I try to (somewhat unsuccessfully at times).

  10. tim

    As we everything else – tech crosses over to the mainstream when it reaches a point of usefulness and usability. This is not exactly news. The trick is knowing which tech will do that.

  11. gregorylent

    maybe it is going mainstream … but the other conversation going on this week is how many people are getting tired of social media … shegeeks, colin walker …and just like in farming, all this stuff is cyclic…. many of the bloggers from 2000 are long gone, not even on friendfeed or twitter …20% of americans have never sent an email, lots of room for the mainstream, pull them away from american idol and the national enquirer …but i think a more mature view is that these things arise and fall away very quickly, progress dictates that it is so …when the maistream is in geek tech, where will geek tech itself be?not where the mainstream is, that is for sure

  12. Geoff

    Pity that Twitter has just hammered us in the UK. Just as i was getting my social circle to start using it via text on their phones 🙁 Also very poor customer service just chopping of SMS with no warning at all. Perhaps they hadn’t paid their texting phone bill!

    1. fredwilson

      It will be back. The costs of supplying effectively free texting in the UK just got too high. People were abusing it with DMs

  13. heif

    this is such an important & interesting topic.early adopters seek what’s new, while others avoid what’s new — begrudgingly coming along only when the perceived value — or pain reduction — of the new tech outweighs the pain of adopting.early adopters get joy from adopting — and BONUS, they also get value from what they adopted. not only is it easy to forget that actual, real, needs-addressing value needs to come from what we make, but **it’s hard for us to understand the pain & avoidance that must be OVERCOME for others to adopt.**To Fred’s idea that maybe something is changing… I wonder if the world is changing a little — and people’s positive experiences in recent years (& in coming years) will make them “forget” the pain of adopting & thus close the gap that gets them adopting more freely.Related, I wrote a blogpost titled “50 Reasons Why More People Aren’t Using Your Website” awhile back:

  14. Dan Weinreb

    We had the same problem recently with a company hoping to get funding from us at Common Angels. Talking to the beta sites showed that the only people who liked the product were people who just enjoyed the cool technology, not the ones that the company was really trying to get. I was sad since two of the three co-founders are personal friends of mine. They’re still trying, including re-targeting their cool technology to other market opportunities. But the “it’s only for geeks” thing is a real problem sometimes.Re Jack Hammer’s comment above, I think he’s exaggerating a bit but his overall point is important. Too many of my own friends are geeks for me to accurately judge the public, sometimes. This is one reason that it’s so crucial for product/interaction designers to NOT be the programmers. See the great book “The Inmate are Running the Asylum” and you’ll know what I mean, and probably be persuaded yourself. Your designer, obviously, must NOT be a geek.One never knows what will cross over. My wife used to work at a software company (Software Arts) and is quite comfortable with PC’s as far as editing and spreadsheets and browsing the web, but she usually hate gadgetsamnd definitely is not a geek (hey, some of my best friends are girl-geeks; they’re great, etc.) However, we just got an Amazon Kindle and she has fallen in love with it!Another commentator above is right that much technology that HAS gone mainstream was pioneered by geeks. But it does not work the other way; plenty of stuff is uptaken by geeks and never goes mainstream. The old “Crossing the Chasm” book (only a pretty-good book) has a lot of good stuff to say about this.And I’m a total geek but still cannot see why I would ever want to use Twitter. Well, I’m 49, maybe I’m just too old to “get it”. 🙂 I do have a blog!

    1. fredwilson

      Have you tried twitter? I never thought I’d like uni until I tried it and now its about my most favorite food of all

      1. Jauder Ho

        Fresh uni if you can get it is even better. I only know of a few places that serve it.

        1. fredwilson

          Yasuda in NYC has the best Uni I’ve ever had. I am sure there is better inJapan

          1. Jauder Ho

            I’ll try that the next time I’m in NYC.If you are out in San Francisco, try Zushi Puzzle. They have fresh uni and it is *very* good. Make sure to sit at the counter. The chef, Roger serves up some really interesting food.Sushi in Japan is in short amazing. I have to go to Taiwan soon and may have to take a detour just for the food.

  15. johndodds

    It inevitably depends on your definition of mainstream, but I agree with you that the rise of mobile will help to drive this. That said, the issue of mobile data charges seems to me be a factor that might discriminate against a lot of the mainstream on those dveices.Away from mobile where, in general, users gravitate to newer and newer handsets (although even that is beginning to slow in europe), I think there is a bigger technological/usability trade-off. That’s because a large part of the mainstream are not using the latest OS and yet developers tend to design for just that.I’ve had personal very recent experience of that with Twitter, but equally was told last night by a gaming expert of the increased tendency for new products to require very high-end specs of users who play on computer as opposed to console.The move to mainstream will happen and will be a cultural phenomenon driven by people seeing the value of the services, but how much it will happen will also be dependent on the technologists retaining a sober view of how non-geeks live.

  16. Kate Brodock

    Fred, great point. It’s funny, every time I get together with new media cohorts, we always have to remind ourselves that most people don’t know what the heck Twitter is, but we use it and talk about it every single day (er… 100 times a day?). I have friends outside the space ask “Tweet… huh? You’re…huh?”Part of the conversion should be on ALL of our shoulders. Whether you’re an investor, a consultant, or you’ve got a new technology, it’s in ALL of our best interest to get the word out, because your job would definitely benefit (not only in new business, but even in current business, with issues like convincing upper-level management that a new media strategy is needed (and hence, use of new technologies).

  17. Eben Thurston

    There are two main issues I think defines what tech services go mainstream and why. One is age. As some have pointed out many of our 30+ wives have become enthusiastic users of facebook, connecting to friends new and old. My non-tech wife has been on facebook for a few months and she loves it and just last night wondered how she ever lived without it. I have 300+ fb friends and my wife is jealous. My college age cousin however, has several thousand friends on FB and several thousand photos. That’s not a function of my wife and I being less geeky, I’m definitely a larger geek than my cousin. It because way more mainstream kids use facebook than mainstream adults.The other factor is the blockbuster effect. A single tech service taking off with the mainstream is more about product and marketing than the underlying tech category. Facebook’s and youtube’s success does not mean that social networks and video sites are now a mainstream phenomenon.Tech services become more mainstream as more tech oriented younger generations grow up but it’s still a hit driven market. Individual company iez break out, not entire product categories.Mobile just makes everything seem more accesable for people who are scared of their PCs but not their phone. By the way, sorry for any typos, I’m writing this on my iPod Touch.

  18. Claude L. Johnson Jr.

    @Jack H: Yeah, I think Fred has the juice on this point.@Erik S: Its not just a smartphone phenomenon. I own a Moto SLVR L7 which is anything BUT a smartphone, and I tweet regularly. I have multiple friends with iPhones who use IM extensively, Facebook less, and won’t touch Twitter with someone else’s private parts (even after my prodding). And these are techies, my best friend who works for Sun among them! Its definitely a mobile phenomenon, but it has nothing intrinsically to do with smartphones. Those just make it easier…and stickier.@UFN: Hmmm. I’m a year older than you. Joined Facebook when they were 1 year old. (I have a past acquaintance who was an early engineer there.) However I put off joining Twitter for about a year until April 2008, then I saw Fred start LotD and got hooked. (Thanks Fred!) Of course the same friends I mentioned above who are big music fans are still too lazy? disinterested? unconvinced? that Twitter has value for them. We’ll see how long it takes; maybe they’ll never get it.@dlweinreb: Twitter is great man! And as I tweeted recently, the platform that Twitter is offering is proving to be as powerful as Facebook’s.… shows this.@Eben: I think you’re on the mark there. You can’t be sure what’s going to win big. I hated Delicious, and I’m using it now but I’m still not convinced. Some of my students fell in love with it but these are/were the same students who haven’t Tweeted yet, and took a looong time (in geek time) to find Facebook. I can’t count how many people I originally brought into that fold. So you never know what will make it.The mobile phone is driving this, and better connectivity is enabling it (finally). Its nice when I can use my phone as a phone too, but the key is that everyone has one of these things in their pocket now. The trick is to make it easy to do all of this stuff. There’s a reason why the iPhone folk use their phones to access the web 8x more than others (or whatever the stat was).The distribution platform is there, now the apps are showing up to leverage it. As those apps pique the interest of people, more will use them. The idea of Twitter annoyed me 5 months ago. Now I can find reasons to tweet almost any time of day. I’ve found some real interesting people to follow, and I get ideas from them that MATTER TO ME. Relevance. Everything is relevant to someone, its just a question of to how many people is that thing relevant.P.S.: I’m about to mention Twitter as a marketing venue for a very non-tech (DJ/party promotion) business that I know. I’ve watched them leverage the web in ways I only imagined when I was doing the same thing 10 years ago. Once they finally “get it”, I think they can go even further. Their audience is perfect Twitter material. It would surprise me if that didn’t drive adoption at certain locations in the DC area, if they actually go that route and follow my idea.

  19. Steven Kane

    Fred, think what you’re seeing is 100% real and will only get more obvious day after day. And the reason is thrilling and also obvious and also a little scary – cause we are all getting olderThe mainstreaming of youth-appeal stuff is inevitable, as the first generation of users ages and itself becomes mainstream etc etc.Heck the web really hit the mainstream some 15 years ago already! today’s early adopters weren’t even born yet.