What do we mean by ‘ubiquity’?

Clay did his usual tour de force at ETCON today. He’s a fantastic and compelling speaker, but the elegance of his metaphors can often hide some logical wrinkles. Only one stood out today – he said that we are getting close to ‘ubiquity’ – that in some circles (students, office workers, etc) access to digital networked technology is assumed, and that in these situations we can start to see mature usage of social software.

This struck a nerve, initially because the assumption feels wrong, but then because the assumption of how we *get* to ubiquity, and what that means for behaviour patterns, felt too simplistic.

In the early stages of the growth curve for a new form of social communication, the user base is so low that any behaviour is likely to be atypical in the long term – with a small sample, unusual behviour is almost as prevalent as the mature patterns that will develop as adoption scales. Its not until we reach about, say, 50% ‘ubiquity’ that these mature patterns start to become clearer, and the earlier models and theories are discarded.

The thing Clay is forgetting is that the first few stages of the adoption curve are often very different from the final push to mass adoption. Approaching ubiquity, there is often a subtle shift in the use of the technology – a tipping point that gets the last 50%, or 40%, or 30% to adopt. This is when something can truly be assumed to be ubiquitous – when the network isn’t characterised by its early adopters, or even the second wave that starts the ‘mature’ phase, but has become an almost neutral utilty.

This is why I don’t think we can say we’re approaching ubiquity – digital networks, and social software tools enabling people to inhabit them, are reaching the mature phase, but we’ve not begun to see signs of the subtle shift that will turn these tools into utilities.

We’ve moved on from the atypical behaviours of MOOs and MUDs, but I still don’t think we’ve seen the tipping point. If there are signs anywhere, its in SMS use. We get excited about how blogs and wikis are ‘small pieces loosely joined’, but text messages are very, very small pieces, loosely joining real people in real places, and helping them navigate and use those spaces in ways that couldn’t have happened before this simple digital network was opened up as a social space.

If this is true, then the final push to ubiquity might be an extension of the mature patterns we’re starting to see emerge on Blogs, Wikis and community spaces like UpMyStreet conversations. But as with all networks, the ‘last mile’ of the adoption curve will be the most significant. We’ll see these emerging mature behaviours become more concrete, but it as likely to be in a completely different platform or context from the ones people are talking about here at ETCON.

[NB: Tom Coates has just finished the UpMyStreet presentation here, and Stef had the last quote – ‘The future of the internet will be in the enmeshing of digital networks into the real world’ – this is the most believable description of the ‘last mile’ problem I’m talking about – how will digital networks make the real world better?]

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