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A few months back, I had a friend of mine (Jeff Segal) contact me about user experiences and how they become obsolete. I was somewhat resistant to this idea because I reasoned an “experience” doesn’t become obsolete – a technology, concept or idea becomes obsolete. So we went back and forth on this topic a little and then Jeff put together an article on it and published it to his blog, The Message Therapist.


As I read the article, I began to think about Jeff’s point a little more deeply. I was especially enamored by idea that we outgrow a user experience. But, the ringtone wasn’t something we just outgrew on our own. This occurred as the result of social norms as Jeff points out in the article with a quote from Backspace co-founder and co-CEO Justin Romano. “When your significant other calls and some mushy song comes on while you’re around other people? Embarrassing! I can’t believe I used to do that!”

Ringtones aren’t the only technology to become “uncool.” Think Myspace or type “Facebook not cool” into your search engine and see how many articles are returned. My daughter has quit using Facebook because she deems it not cool, but also because of some of the reasons I cited in Why I am Breaking Up with Facebook years ago. It’s not just websites or ringtones either. A few years back, I was on the L here in Chicago (when I was still on Facebook) and I spotted a guy with a Sony Walkman. I snapped a candid shot and posted it with some snarky comment about the outdated technology. As stupid as it might seem, our choices in technology are the equivalent of the beat up VW Diesel Rabbit I used to drive in high school or the Gremlin Wayne and Garth drove in Wayne’s World.

It’s like we’re all in high school again. And it’s called Social Informatics – a field of study championed by Rob Kling at my alma matter, Indiana University. I spent a considerable amount of time as a graduate student studying this field. At its essence, it’s simply the study of technology in a cultural context – how technology changes us, influences us and the social consequences of our interactions with technology. Of course, what I am writing of here is only a small aspect of Social Informatics. But, the idea that society can affect the uptake or downswing of a technology based on social norms is intriguing.

It was once cool to pull out a clamshell phone. Today some people would be embarrassed to carry one. It was once cool to have a boombox or Sony Walkman or an Austin Powers ringtone. Entire industries were built around these technologies. It was once cool to wear Bugle Boy pants or parachute pants. Nothing is immune to fashion trends. Even web design has become prey to trends. Glossy buttons and gradients were “the shit” 10 years ago. Today it’s all about flat design and you’d get laughed out of a design meeting for using glossy buttons. There is even a website devoted to the web timeline at the Internet Archives – The Wayback Machine. It’s a humbling experience – as humbling as looking back at those old 80s photos of yourself. Both are embarrassing.

Apple Retro Homescreen

The Apple homescreen circa 1998

Social norms and society can change the fashion of our technologies just as quickly as it does our clothing. The interesting thing about this is the nostalgia effect. Advertisers often use this as a tool to sell us more by inducing our sense of nostalgia – our love of the past and “better times.” Something as archaic as an LP can be revived by the “hipster crowd” in a short time period. So this principle can work both ways. Steampunk Design is another example. Wanna Steampunk your home and blend future and past?

But, I am still not completely convinced an “experience” becomes obsolete as Jeff writes. I believe the experience of using a product can affect the diffusion, either positively or negatively via social channels. Using the ringtone as an example, the experience of the ringtone became a source of embarrassment and thus affected the uptake of that technology. Conversely, if it suddenly becomes cool (or makes you a hipster) to roller skate with a Walkman slung around your torso, you can damn sure bet the experience of the mobile cassette player will find its way to a new generation. But come on, everybody knows 8-Track tapes have better sound.

So maybe you still love your Arnold Schwarzenegger “Who’s Your Daddy?” ringtone (100 Worst Ringtones of All Time) and are simply waiting for ringtones to see a resurgence – actively sending the ringtones to all your hipster friends. It could happen. There could be a comeback. Apple did it. John Travolta did it. Robert Downey Jr. even did it. And who ever thought bell bottoms would find their way back into fashion?

So anything is possible…which is why I keep my parachute pants and Milli Vanilli album in a safe place.

Steampunk design image courtesy of Steve Snodgrass