Whenever you bring up the idea that the cycle of innovation must, at some point, come to an end, you inevitably evoke the memory of Charles Duell. For the uninitiated, Duell was the commissioner of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in 1899 supposedly said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
We can all have a good laugh at Duell’s expense now (even though he may never have actually said that), but perhaps we shouldn’t. After all, isn’t Duell’s sentiment generally true in a lot of cases? For instance, have cars really changed that much since the ’50s? Sure, they’re more fuel efficient and they now have OnStar systems and USB ports, but they’re still basically the same — four tires that you operate with a steering wheel. They still (mostly) run on gas. They’ve been perfected, but are they fundamentally different?
Or take toasters. Is the toaster you could buy in 1971 really all that different from today’s? For all I know, toaster technology may have advanced dramatically since then, but as a consumer, there’s really not much difference. It took a minute or so to make toast 40 years ago, and it still does today.
So why do we expect social media to be any different? Simple. It’s because we have just come off a big spurt of growth and the natural inclination is to assume that’s going to continue forever. That’s just human nature. And that’s why this year’s South by Southwest conference is a bit of a comedown. Back in 2007, SXSW was the launching pad for Twitter. In 2009, it was Foursquare. This year? Nada.
But we’re not just having an off year. We’re at a new, more boring stage in the development cycle.
Such thinking runs counter to the ethos of social media, I realize, but consider that social media has really only been around in its current form since 2005 or so. The real innovation that spurred the social media movement is microblogging. Before Facebook added status updates, fewer people were blogging and responding to blogs. Every innovation since then has basically been a refinement, including:
- Twitter: a network devoted exclusively to microblogging
- Foursquare: mobile microblogging with information about your location
- GetGlue: microblogging about TV programs
- Instagram: visual microblogging
If the latter is the big innovation of SXSW this year, I can hypothosize that micro video blogging will rule in 2012, but this is more tweaking than anything brand new. (While 12seconds.tv ultimately failed in its micro video blogging endeavors, perhaps it was ahead of its time.)
Perhaps you object to this on the grounds that tech is somehow immune to the toaster innovation phenomenon. But what about personal computing? The industry took a quantum leap in 1984 when Apple introduced the Macintosh, but, seriously, how different is your Mac or PC today? Yes, the graphics are a lot better and it’s a hell of a lot faster, but there hasn’t been another innovation quite at the same scale as the graphical user interface. The iPhone was also a big jump for mobile in 2007, but all the smartphones since then have basically run with the idea of a touchscreen and mobile apps. The iPad? It’s nothing new: Tablet PCs have been around for 20 years. Apple just basically introduced a larger version of the iPhone. The iPad is very well designed of course, but, in the end, the device’s success is a feat of marketing.
So where does this leave us? Maybe with a more realistic sense of where social media is going. Yes, it’s going to be even more prevalent in 10 years. Yes, there will no doubt be lots of cool new technologies that bring microblogging to new arenas, but you’re not going to see another Twitter or Facebook. Maybe everything that could be invented hasn’t, but, in social media, all the important things have.