One of the more interesting things, at least to me, that came to mind when highlighting the top ten Web services I used last year was how boringly mundane and adult some of them were. You'd think my highlighting sites like Mint.com, Zillow and Redfin, along with discovery staples like Google Reader, Twitter and Icerocket would prove me to be an old man with responsibilities, not a fun-loving hipster out to have a good time and be sure the world had photos to show how much less fun they were having. But the issue is not so much that I've gotten old and stodgy, only that in a recursive state, sites that have value deliver value. I think we have practically reached a saturation point on the Web with enough places to play games, enough places to share photos, enough places to engage in public or private chats and enough places to find new people.
What is needed now is a doubling down on intelligence, or at least a way to improve our abilities to be better people, better employees, or simply better educated. The promise of something like Quora is not that it's another social network to chat, but that it has the potential to be a valuable resource for discovery, presuming the community allows it to do so, instead of a slip to mediocrity through popularity. The value of Redfin and Zillow is that I can be a smarter homeowner or buyer. The value of Mint.com is that I can budget my money in a better way. Just tonight, my wife and I tapped into our Mint.com history to build a shared Google Docs spreadsheet and track our expenditures versus income, to see if we were on track. (Diagnosis: day to day)
I understand the fun of niche products like Instagram and Path, which have seen incredible traction, even if they are not for me. I see the ballooning of Zynga and cringe at how many -Villes the game factory can cook up, at the expense of its users' productivity and money. I have enjoyed Foursquare, even if I am still waiting for the "aha!" moment that transitions it from novelty to resource. I watch others debate apps like Foodspotting and think maybe I'd rather go hungry. I watch the buzz around Groupon, and can't say I've ever used one of their coupons, as their page asks me to commit to twice the fun at half the price.
The question is - what can we do to better ourselves and become even more efficient and knowledgeable, rather than building an improved time-waster with increased virality?
I use Google Reader and Twitter to find news relevant to my interests and to take in as much information as possible so I can make smarter decisions or insight. If sources become less useful, they get cut. The initial attraction to FriendFeed way back in 2007 was the same deal - get all updates in one place in the name of efficiency. The site became even more intriguing due to unfiltered discussions from early Googlers before becoming the much more casual network it is now. Facebook is what it is. It's humongous - a practically unstoppable force of people's actions and likes. The challenge comes from staring into the stream and finding the pieces useful to me. That's part of what Ev Williams told Om Malik when he discussed the challenge of an infinite Web of information and a major UI challenge that Google's Marissa Mayer mentioned when speaking on "contextual discovery" at LeWeb, finding a way to have the best stuff come to you without your even searching.
Often Google is maligned for its bungling in social relative to the success at Facebook, Twitter and Quora, for it's not seen as being part of the company's DNA - the focus being organizing the world's information. I can see them getting their HP graph calculators out and algorithmically determining that Farmville and baby photos are a waste of time. Often, they are. So did they make a mistake in not being the best at something they determined was not a good mission? I am not sure.
I've enjoyed using Buzz and the social elements of Google Reader, but just because there is a successful company in one market doesn't mean you have to be in that market. Apple never launched as an ISP, despite many Mac fans hoping they would several years ago. They just partnered with Earthlink. Dell made a bunch of crappy iPod wannabes when they felt pushed, and we're going to see a lot of bad iPad competition at CES. What I mean by bringing this up is that companies should focus on what they do best, especially if it is noble and intelligent. The thought that Google (or others like Google) would have to make a side deal with Zynga to bring games to the platform just to get users seems like a white flag.
I don't want more places to play games. I don't want more places that I can share photos with an increasing array of effects. I do want better filters so that the best stuff comes to me, from all networks, without my having to sift through the noise. That's important to me, and part of what I am working to do.
I want to see an aggressive push for quality. I look at the work SimpleGeo is doing and it is impressive. Not the exciting stuff you can expect to see on CNN, but the smart and hard work to provide content to players in a growing industry. I look at the growth in QR codes and voice search as moves forward to get us information even faster and applaud. I look at all the hard work done in hardware to create faster networks, wired and unwired, to make our disks ever more dense and our data safer, and this provides value. But I think we have over-corrected on social. Social is fun and great, but it is not everything. It is one factor in the world of discovery, not the final world. So if we could, let's find those people creating great companies of real and permanent value and let's make them go viral.