Eve Dmochowska
Eve Dmochowska

The web’s unavoidable sharp learning curve

A funny thing happened to me this morning: I finally realised that a really large chunk of people who use the internet haven’t got a clue about the internet space at all.

Actually, this is hardly news breaking. Evidence of it abounds. Phishing (creating fake login pages that mimic your online banks login page) is an excellent example. Also, the Nigerian 419 scams seem to be flourishing. People all over the world fall for these all the time, and leave the rest of us shaking our head in amazement.

But I always had this image that it is the 80-year-old naive grannies who sit in front of their computer, who are overwhelmed by the new technology and who click their way into all sorts of trouble. And who could blame them?

But today, I realise it was me who is being naive. Here is why: ReadWriteWeb is an extremely popular website that reports on internet services, start-ups, and new technologies. It’s the kind of site I spend many hours per week reading. One of the services it writes a lot about is Facebook and because ReadWriteWeb is such a popular site, it turns out that if you search for “Facebook” using Google, the ReadWriteWeb site comes up as a first (or one of the first) result. (See footnote). So what happens? Thousands of people search for Facebook using Google (instead of just typing the Facebook address into the address bar) >> they then click on the first result, which is ReadWriteWeb and that looks nothing like Facebook >> and then they leave over 1 500 comments asking things like “WHY HAS THIS SITE CHANGED SO MUCH????????” and “I JUST WANT TO LOG IN!!!!!!! WHERE DO I DO THAT?????”

In other words, these thousands of people believe that they are on the Facebook site, they think that overnight the whole Facebook look, feel and purpose has changed and they are very, very upset about it.

The editor of ReadWriteWeb was forced to write this post:

Dear visitors from Google. This site is not Facebook. This is a website called ReadWriteWeb that reports on news about Facebook and other internet services. You can, however, click here and become a Fan of ReadWriteWeb on Facebook, to receive our updates and learn more about the internet. To access Facebook right now, click here. For future reference, type “facebook.com” into your browser address bar or enter “facebook” into Google and click on the first result. We recommend that you then save Facebook as a bookmark in your browser.

My friends and I can have a good giggle over this, but this points out some harsh realities. For one, it is obvious from the comments on ReadWriteWeb that these are not 80-year-old grannies. These are people who probably use the computer and the internet daily and would consider themselves quite apt at it.

Arthur Goldstuck, from the local internet research company World Wide Worx, has some smart insight into this: he says it takes on average about 5 years for an online user to become confident enough to engage in online services like shopping or blogging. But the exception comes from social network applications, like Facebook, because there is peer-group effect and people urge each other to use it and learn from each other. But outside of Facebook they are still “newbies” and not very clued up about how the internet space really works.

There are some heave implications in this for South African online space: for one, few of the 2 million+ unique local Facebook users should be expected to actively participate in other online services that we launch in this country, no matter how exciting or innovative those services may be. That’s disappointing and discouraging. Five years is a long time to wait for people to “catch up” and given our poor initial (and current) internet penetration numbers, it seems this will be a price we’ll be paying for a while.

On a brighter note, this should encourage our local developers to focus more on the global market than the local market. The proportion of newbies might be the same but the pie is so much larger.

(Footnote: When I search for “Facebook” on Google, I actually get Facebook.com as a first result. But Google results differ based on location so it is difficult to see what the Americans are actually seeing when they search for the same.)