The Danger in Polls (again)

A new survey came out that says that half of all Americans believe that Facebook  is a fad, and will eventually disappear. Given that these are still early days for things like Facebook, Twitter, etc., it isn’t surprising that most people don’t believe it will last. And it isn’t the first time that “public opinion” turned out to to flat-out wrong.

Not The First Time The Public Skeptical

Consider the history of many technologies and services: any number of them were viewed with skepticism when they first arrived. The list is impressive: the phonograph, the telephone, the automobile, radio, movies, movies with sound, movies with colour, television, home video players, personal computers, the Internet, smartphones, tablet computers. Each and every one, during their early years, were viewed as “fads” or, at best, niche products. Every one of them has been woven in the fabric our our lives. Every one of them had, at the time, cogent and reasonable arguments as to why they wouldn’t be a big thing. People would rather listen to live performances, or play music themselves (the phonograph). Who would I talk to? (the telephone). Their noisy, stinky and there are no roads (the car). I’ll just listen to the phonograph (that I was skeptical about originally; the radio). I’ll just listen to the radio or watch a live show (again, one of the things I thought would be a fad; the movies). Why would I want to watch a fuzzy picture with lousy sound at home, when I can see a movie with better sound and in colour (which I thought wouldn’t take hold; the television).

The personal and mobile computing space holds a very interesting story. If you had polled people back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when the PC was starting to gain real traction in business, I would bet most people would have said it will never be a big thing in the home. And portable computers? If I don’t need it at home, why do I need it with me?. Then those same people didn’t see the need for a smartphone, at least outside of business. No one was going to buy an iPhone (since they Blackberry and Symbian phones were better). Why would people want an iPad?

But look at what actually happened. The telephone, which was viewed as a niche product at best in its inception, is now in our pockets. Nearly 80% of all Americans own a mobile phone. Half of all Americans now own a smartphone. Nearly 20% of the US owns at least 1 tablet computer. There is an average of nearly 1 PC for every home, and half of those PC’s are notebook computers. Every one of those devices were either fads, or would be relegated to a tiny part of the market. Every one of those technologies is now an important part of most people’s lives in some way.

Public Opinion Just Not Reliable

The public’s view on a particular service or technology can be interesting (given they are typically the ones needed to make it a success). But let’s face it, the “public” as a large group isn’t very good at predicting their own future needs and desires. That’s the main reason why companies like Apple don’t bother with focus groups or similar market research techniques: people have no idea what they want in future products. They are pretty good at knowing what they want once they can see something, use it, touch it, and start to explore the thing. But a focus group would never have developed the Blackberry, the iPhone or the iPad. No focus group told Sony to make the Walkman, or helped Palm develop the first Pilot PDA. Ford didn’t rely on market research to build the Model T. Bell didn’t have market studies as his guide for the telephone. These are all devices that people built, and had a vision for. They took a chance.

Could Facebook be a fad? Possibly. People thought Beanie Babies would be a sound, long-term investment. Pogs looked like they could having staying power (and Canada Games bet their entire company on them, ultimately losing out when the game’s popularity died). The popular push news service, PointCast, was going to be the future of news and information distribution. Internet-based companies would rule product sales and distribution (pets.com anyone?). So yes, something that looks real and substantial now can certainly disappear.

But given that nearly 10% of the entire human population has an account, and at least 1/3rd of those people use it on a regular basis (and both numbers are growing), that tells me that Facebook has actually become more important than people realize, or are willing to admit. Facebook itself has been transforming over the years, becoming more than a way to stay connected with friends and share holiday photos. It has grown to be an entertainment portal. It is becoming a news and information portal. It is a way for companies to communicate with their customers, not just one-way (through advertising) but as a two-way multiparty conversation about the company, their products and what consumers like, dislike and might want. Facebook is somewhat different that it was a year ago, and I expect it will be different again a year from now.

Will it last forever? Certainly not in its current form. But everything changes. Adaptation is critical, because if businesses don’t adapt their products and services, they will die. Facebook may not even be around a decade from now. But at this moment in time, Facebook is a popular and important part of the Internet. The proof is in the number of accounts, the number of active users, and the traffic on the site. That speaks louder than any opinion poll ever will.

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