edge cases and early adopters

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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.

4 TrackBacks

Elizabeth Lane Lawley thinks Robert Scoble is an edge case because he follows 840 blogs in a web feeds reader. Someone who reads 840 blogs is an edge case. But so is someone who reads dozens of daily newspapers, or... Read More

Scoble is a edge case. from Russell's Ramblings on January 27, 2006 5:35 PM

At the end of Microsoft' Search Champ program, Liz Lawley called Robert Scoble an edge case because he reads 840 blogs. She did not use the term derisively. She went on the describe the difference between early adopter and edge case. In our house we t Read More

One of my aims of this blog is to become an “Edge Case”. I didn’t actually know what an edge case was until I read about Robert Scoble being upset that he was called one. As a long time reader of his blog, I actually agree with Elizab... Read More

How many RSS feeds to people subscribe to?  This is one the questions Wolfgang Bartelme asked his... Read More


I think that this analysis is on point and no offense should have been taken. Many of us in the blogosphere believe that our sometimes "eccentric" (well maybe not to us) behavior is representative of the masses and we get too caught up in "inside baseball". While this might be entertaining (and informative) to us, the rest of the world breathes a collective yawn, not finding anything "compelling" in our fascinations.

By no means is Scoble an edge case, and I can't say that I can applaud you for saying that. You obviously are over jelous of his achivements.

Liz, fab post. It leads me to vast, swirling ruminations about the gulf between edge cases and The Rest of Us, and implications for design and usability, and heck, even librarianship writ large. But I have homework! Keep pushing those concepts around and make them sit up and beg... I'll sit gratefully on the sidelines.

Robert says people called him an IM "edge case" when he was really an early adopter. Yes--because other edge cases joined him in IM and worked the technology up to consumer-level. RSS too was pure edge-case stuff, until other edge-cases made lots of good newsreaders.

Reading 840 feeds is hard in a way I don't see new apps fixing. (Monitoring 840 feeds? Lots of ways to do that--heck, just read Scobleizer!) What Robert does takes hours and brainspace most non-professionals just can't give to the task--as your post points out. It'd be lovely if, once again, he led the techno-parade that let all the rest of us make him an early adopter.

I'm sorry he heard your edge case remark as an anonymous insult. Folks, don't shoot Liz! Sharing a counterpoint is what she's supposed to do.

Hi, Liz! Hmmm, let's see as a new comer to this blog, perhaps I should be measured in my response...nah!

I'm glad to hear you say that some things that are of intense interest to us (indeed, fill our days) just don't play in Peoria. I can recall numerous of our past conversations in which I attempted to make just that point.

I like the distinction you draw between "edge cases" and "early adopters." I think there might be another nuanced category as well: "envelope pushers." By this nomenclature I mean those who, at whichever stage the tech itself exists, intentional apply it in unintended ways, sometimes to an eccentric end, other times to useful purpose.

I sense that in discussions such as this...and others that your comments have engendered, a bit of a human tendency. It's not unusual for us to find ourselves surrounded (particularly in work or professional environments) by people of like persuation, in this case people who tend to engage technological tools routinely, early in their life-cycle, perhaps even obsessively. There is nothing odd about that...except when we extrapolate a world view from that experience that suggests that most everyone else would do similarly. They may or they may not.

I do find it interesting that Robert Scoble states "today’s edge case is tomorrow’s mainstream user." Maybe yes, maybe no. That's the problem with generalized statements: they don't always apply, but it is difficult to argue against them.

Now as for the Engelbart mouse thingie, I think this part of the arguement confuses two very different aspects of technologies. When first proposed, of course the mouse concept seemed weird, but with the passage of much time and the development of complementary technologies, the mouse became a very utilitarian technology that most computer users today ably employ. Reading 840 blogs a day doesn't follow the same progression. Try to use a recent graphical desktop operating system without a mouse: I can't. Try to survive a day without reading 840 blogs: I do it every day. No matter how good the reader tool gets, (1) I'm not inclined to read that much, and (2) I have a job responsibility and a family responsibility that I have chosen that precludes me from reading blogs eight hours a day. And I dare say that I am more the norm (I know, bad word these days) across the population of computer users.

In addition, increasingly as more of the objects we interact with on a daily basis entail embedded systems (call it the post-pc world), the mouse will disappear as a useful tool. It's already happening in my life with my Treo. The device has a fair amount of raw compute power, but doesn't know what a mouse is and does not need to.

Which brings me to another point related to the passage of time and definitions of early adopter, power-user, edge rider, etc. In 1983, back before we met, Liz, I was using what has now become chat/IM. It was about as useless then as it is now for thoughtful communication and threaded discussion ( ;-0 ), but it was all we had...well, almost. Does that make me an "edge case"? Even if I hated the technology, even if I researched and wrote about it? Did the fact that I was using it before many others, before there was a true personal computer revolution, define me as an "edge case"? Or is there something more? I think we need to understand the difference between the technology per se and the application of it. So then, perhaps "edge case" is really more of a sociological issue than a technological one.

I've always been bad at guessing people's ages, but from his picture, I'd guess that the 'scobleizer' hadn't reached the age of reason by 1983.


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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on January 27, 2006 11:03 AM.

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