The Ancients talk of a time before memory, before 1990, where, here on the west coast of Canada, coffee culture did not exist. The world then was a flat wasteland of instant coffee, reconstituted from crystals, sitting for hours on a sad Tim Hortons’ hot-plate. Like cave-folk, only with less to live for, we stumbled about knowing nothing of espresso, machiato or latte. The only reason to drink that grim brew was to bitterly pinch oneself for a moment out of a mumbling, lurching existence.
Things are different now.
Today, serving coffee means having an industrial espresso machine, knowing and boasting the bean supplier, and not daring to let an espresso shot live outside the cup for more than a minute. What changed?
One thing: Starbucks.
Serious coffee drinkers may wave Starbucks aside, but deep down they know that they owe the flourishing of their love to the green mermaid. Starbucks cracked the secret of bringing coffee as way of life, with all of culture’s refinements and diversity, to places where it didn’t exist. They bridged the gap between specialist and general consumer. They raised the bar everywhere they went, changing perceptions and democratizing the elite language, tastes and enjoyment previously isolated to eccentric cafes.
Like any large business there are bound to be practices and effects that aren’t so great, but what I want to focus on is how Starbucks took the tastes of an elite group into the mainstream, and in doing so changed the minimum expectation and demands of the mass market. Leaving coffee, let’s look at the state of Web 2.0.
Hey, Spaceman, How’s the Weather Up in Space?
Chances are that if you’re reading this blog, you know that user-generated content can be more surprising, compelling and often trustworthy than ‘the news’. You wield feeds to give yourself a god’s-eye awareness of change across a custom chain of islands producing news, images, opinions, and funny cats. You know how to find your friends on any website and how to make new ones purely on the basis of shared interest. You know how to weave your awareness and presence through a network of devices, and how to make the threads vibrate to communicate your most casual and profound thoughts. And you know that the world without the connectedness seems dark and stale.
Web 2.0 is our coffee, and we’re the oddballs who sip from tiny cups in out of the way cafes while everyone else thinks that Folgers and Maxwell House are the real deal. We might get small thrills from knowing we’re on the cutting edge, but we also know that it would be more fun if more people understood how much they were missing. And deep down, we know we’re failing to bring the most exciting fruits of Web 2.0 to the world at large.
Try explaining a folksonomy or a wiki to an average web user. It’s hard. How about social bookmarking, or lifestreams? It’s usually hard to get the concepts across, and our enthusiasm for this or that innovative startup comes across as almost alien. With our interest in the web, it’s easy for us to pick up new ideas and words and run with them. For the rest of the web world, it’s not so easy, and we do a terrible job at communicating the value of what we’re doing. To really cross over into the mainstream, Web 2.0 needs its Starbucks.
Blue is the New Green
This weekend I got to meet and work with Scott Kveton up here in Vancouver. While waiting for the rest of our group at breakfast, Scott told me that the night before, he overheard a pair of 30-something women talking outside a pub, and these words especially caught his ear:
“You’re not on Facebook? Oh my god you have to get on Facebook, you just have to.”
What Scott heard was akin to a Starbucks opening on a new street. Only it’s not called Starbucks and it doesn’t serve coffee.
But when that friend goes home, possibly drunk, and gets herself into Facebook, she’ll learn in a short time much of what we’ve been building and enjoying on the web’s edge for the past few years. She won’t be socially networking, she’ll be finding friends and checking out people. She won’t be posting user-generated content, she’ll be making jokes, whispering to friends and talking in a group of people. She won’t raise an impressed eyebrow at some AJAX-fu, but she will be pleased for a second that her message appeared in a thread without reloading a page. She’s not joining an elite crowd of aficionados, she’s joining a party in progress, where it’s easy and safe to move from room to room.
In talking about this, Kris Krug noted that Facebook excels at taking only the most useful and central feature patterns from Web 2.0 websites and making them flow well into the central app. I think he’s dead right, and that’s how Facebook blue will become the Starbucks green for Web 2.0 concepts.
There are things that weird me out about Facebook. There’s a strong streak of Disney-like sanitization running through it, and any hub that links so many personal details together in a persistent space makes me wary. But there’s also no denying the power of a smooth user experience and especially of making contact with people you haven’t spoken with in a while. It’s not the most advanced, it’s not the best, but it just works and works well.
Like Starbucks, there are lots of Facebook members who have discovered a whole new world through one well-crafted and infinitely repeatable experience, and after a while they’ll move on to something more specialized and refined. But most will stick with Facebook for their daily fix of the social web, barely remembering the time before time, when the gossamer-thin channels of email and instant messaging and websites that weren’t about us were the whole online world. But no matter where they end up after Facebook, they’ll expect certain things and a certain quality of experience that didn’t exist for them before.
Like Starbucks, Facebook won’t steamroll every plucky startup and well-loved, if small, service. Niches will still have their place, and in their innovations have a better chance of being understood and adopted with the post-Facebook web user, much like the ex-Starbucks customer has been schooled enough to seek out and embrace niche providers that suit a more refined taste. Makers of the new and cool will soon have more people than ever who get what they’re doing and want a piece of it.
The tide is rising, and all boats are floating higher with it.