Darwin Days Are Here Again, Or, The Lead Balloon

guest post by Adrian Chan

In this Mother of all Meltdowns, tech talk is bound to turn to matters of survival and endurance. While the market may have let out a sigh of relief today, fundamentals are grim all around. A world-wide economic contraction is under way, and any pause in the financial market’s panic is likely to be only fleeting.

But as I like to say, mother is the necessity of invention. And invention is the mother of all silicon valley companies. Mashable today runs a brief on how to draw inspiration from hard times: Recession is the Mother of Tech Invention. Can social media startups take advantage of tough times to push innovation farther and faster?

It is not just the pressure cooker of economic distress that drives innovation, however. It is also the end of the honeymoon, the days of daily evangelism that characterize the good times in the new tech world. The optimism of tech innovators is greatest when the “new” is in “tech,” and the tech is new. It’s an optimism fueled by early adopters and the blush of breaking industry news. The forward-looking anticipation of an upward-trending line, whether that line traces a growing user base, feats of financing, market adoption, traffic, or plain-old revenues.

It’s not that optimism would be misplaced during times like these – if it’s optimism grounded in reality and based on defensible claims. It’s just that the overall mood is now anxious, fearful, and uncertain. The future no longer looks bright. It’s time for the sunglasses to come off.

For those of us who count on our vision for a living, sunglasses never were much of a help. But now that the future is less clear, foresight may have to depend more on insight than on eyesight. It is time now for innovators to see what they can do with what they have.

When times get tough, the mood in tech swings from excitement to trepidation. No longer do we assume that growth is eternal. No longer do we count on the cooperation of consumers, the attraction of advertisers, or the news of the new. No longer do we spend our days fixed on the daily counters: those statistics that are to the web world the vital signs of our health and wellness. Like the markets around us, we, too, adopt a flight to quality. We start measuring what counts.

The great qualitative reckoning is nigh upon us, like some monster industrial combine come harvest time, a rumbling thrasher chewing chaff for its wheat: Darwin days for the social web machine.

But the fittest will survive, and funding and financing aside, innovation will clock its progress even in tough times. A flight to quality will bring better and more useful features and designs. User experience will preside over technical developments, and real social utility will drive the engine of growth. We will strip away what we don’t need and focus on what we do. And as the climate changes, so too will our paradigms.

Lest conservation threaten innovation, this generation too will learn that invention does not end with self-preservation. It will learn that what matters is not the survival of an individual (company), but rather the species. That the design is in the social, in the milieu, or the ecosystem. Ours is an ecology of new socio-technical practices, a culture of communication that thrives within an environment of emerging habits of use. The companies that survive in these changing conditions will be those that best understand their cultures. Not their own company traits, features, or attributes, but the activities that they help to enable.

Social media companies today need to know not what they do, but what users do with them. Not what they are like, but why users like them. Not who they are, but who their users are. Companies that innovate only on the basis of what they are, and not for how they are used, will fail to see how and where they belong in their environment. The environment has changed, and success will come to those best suited and adapted to these new conditions.

It would be wise for us now to lose some of the hubris that can work so well during the good times, and to adopt some of the realism better suited for bad times. For according to the laws of natural selection, it is not the species that select their environment. It is the environment that does the selection.

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