Whilst we get all excited about social software and Web 2.0, does the average web user care at all?  Should they?

There’s an interesting debate happening at the moment on the SIG-IA (Special Interest Group for Information Architecture) message board. It started from a mini-rant from one person about various assumptions that we as usability / information architecture professionals make about the methods we use and the knowledge of web technologies of most users on the web. 

The part that struck a chord with me most was about our assumptions about the knowledge of, desire for, and ability to use certain Web 2.0 concepts. To quote the email “Users don’t get RSS, and they shouldn’t have to. RSS is a technical solution that users need not care about. There are savvy users who understand what all those buttons do, know what a folksonomy is and like tagging up things – but they are a small minority.”

He’s got a good point there. At User Vision we continually get insights to user behaviour across the UK through usability tests, focus groups, contextual analysis and interviews. In general, most people have a tenuous at best understanding of what these (not so new anymore) Web 2.0 interactions are all about and why they should care about them. 

Sure there are exceptions we see when testing with more experienced web users. But frankly, I rarely hear users say “Oh look, I can add this on my Del.icio.us account, that’s good” or “I’d like to subscribe to the RSS feed for that kind of content” even on information heavy sites that include such channels. So I think its worth asking: Do average web users know their RSS from their elbows?

And do they care? Should they? The official stats probably state that the takeup is increasing all the time, but my impression is that the early adopters and ‘technorati’ (what a horrible term) are engaged in flurry of excitement through web sites and digital channels. An almost digital ‘Keep up with the Jones’s’ mentality has led many, including readers and contributors to E-consultancy, to climb the learning curve and get their heads around online social networking.

But for those holding back slightly, let alone the refuseniks as discussed in another blog posting, the blizzard of terms such as Web 2.0, RSS, CSS, folksonomies, podcasts, AJAX, mashups, tags, videoblogs, social software, wikis, syndication etc is daunting at best and alienating at worst. Even putting aside the technology through which we access this information (computers mostly, mobiles increasingly) these are all rather big concepts and it can be difficult to get your head around them.

A lot of non tech-savvy people think “Yes, that’s good information in that online article. If I want to keep abreast of it in the future, I can just look for it in Google again”, even when there is an RSS feed on the page.

The thing is, those who DO know what these things are tend to blog a lot – so their voice is probably over represented on the ‘blogosphere’ (another ugly term), thus feeding this vicious cycle of technical people online talking louder and louder to each other about how wonderful this online social networking world is. With a bit of help from the new media hype thrown in for good measure.

Is there any truth in this or have I just woken up in a cynical, skewed mood this morning? Maybe the features in IE7 and extensions in Firefox will drive the take up to the masses (and without a doubt usability will be a big part of that happening).  Maybe the YouTube / Bebo / MySpace sites will help bridge the gap, at least among the younger generation. Maybe there is just less technical inertia than I think.  As another person helpfully pointed out, the bigger picture of technical adoption is thus:

At one time:

  • ‘The average user’ didn’t know a web browser from a lawnmower.
  • ‘The average user’ didn’t know what a browser-based email account was.
  • ‘The average user’ didn’t know what audio/video stream was all about.
  • ‘The average user’ didn’t know how to use IM or web-based telephony.
  • ‘The average user’ didn’t know how to buy books, tickets, music, toys and
    any number of 2,398,674 kinds of merchandise online.
  • ‘The average user’ was a university researcher banging keys on a green-on-black terminal.

At one time, somebody somewhere worried that the introduction of electricity
would ruin humankind.

What do you think?  Will uptake of Web 2.0 technologies continue apace and reach the person on the street, or is this going to be another element of the digital divide?  

Chris Rourke
Managing Director
User Vision