This week was the fourth version of Microsoft' "search champ" program, and the first one where I've been heavily involved in the planning (rather than simply being an attendee). It was a great meeting, with some amazing people providing input into new product development in MSN/WindowsLive. I got see to old friends (like Cindy and Walt), and be a fangirl (hi, Merlin!).
During the wrap-up session, when Robert Scoble was talking about designing tools that would optimize everyone's syndication experience so that they, too, could read 840 feeds, I called him an "edge case." He didn't like that. Not one bit. But his defense was, to me, unconvincing.
Robert's an "edge case" to me in this context because very few people will ever have the time or the inclination--regardless of how good the tools are--to read that many sources. Robert does not because he's some freak of nature, but because he's got a job that requires him to monitor activity in the technology community. When I worked at the Library of Congress, I had a job that required me to read dozens of newspapers and magazines every single day, looking for articles related to governmental initiatives. That made me an edge case. Most people don't read dozens of news publications every day, and it's not that they want to but simply haven't found the tools to do it. It's that they don't have a need for that much diffuse information.
He felt I used the term derisively, which I didn't. He's right that edge cases often push us in new directions, and I've got a long-standing interest in liminal spaces (the fancy academic term for those in-between spaces where contexts overlap and new ways of thinking and acting often emerge). But in his reaction, he confused what I see as two very different things--edge cases and early adopters. In this case he's both. But his response focused much more on how his early adoption of new technologies--from macs to blogs--foreshadowed broader adoption. That's about being an early adopter, which is not synonymous with being an edge case.
So what's the difference? To me, an early adopter is someone who recognizes the value of a new technology or tool before it becomes widely used or accepted, and often evangelizes it to others. They recognize trends before they're trends, and are the ones who are always acquiring the latest-and-greatest technical toys. An edge case is someone who's on the extreme edge of an activity, regardless of whether they're an early adopter. Someone who reads 840 blogs is an edge case. But so is someone who reads dozens of daily newspapers, or runs 10 miles every morning. Their choices may influence our behavior--those edge cases are great at recommending things to others--but most people will be far more moderate in their behavior.
There's a story I cite a lot when I'm talking to people about diffusion of technological innovation. Back in my early days as a librarian in the 1980s, online searching didn't mean launching a web browser and going to Google. Instead, it meant connecting via dial-up to an online database and doing a searches with complex boolean operators. Librarians loved this, and decided that the whole world needed to learn the "joy of searching." It was that whole "teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime" mentality. One day at a library conference, I heard a wonderful speech by Herb White in which he scolded librarians for this mentality. "I have no joy of searching," he told the audience. "I have joy of finding!"
In that context of online searching, librarians were both edge cases and early adopters--much like Robert is with blogs and syndicated feeds. They're edge cases because they do in fact love to search as much as love to find. They find it hard to believe that not everyone would want to learn arcane search syntax in order to improve their online search experience. But they're also early adopters--they were finding things online before the web was born, and they continue to push the limits on how you can use online search tools (one of my most popular posts ever was a transcription of Mary Ellen Bates' fabulous "30 Search Tips in 40 Minutes" talk from the 2003 Internet Librarian conference).
Anyone who's looked at aggregated query logs from a search engine knows that most of the people doing online searching these days aren't masters of the boolean query. They didn't become like the edge cases. But they did follow the early adopters--just in a more limited way.
So, Robert, my point wasn't that because you're an edge case nothing you do is relevant to other users. Nor do I think being an edge case is bad (I consider myself to be one, too). But the people who follow your lead as an early adopter won't do it the way you do. They're simply not going to want or need to read 840 syndicated feeds. And to try to optimize the user experience based on the needs of edge cases isn't, I think, in anyone's best interest.