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Would You Buy a Yard Tool if You Had No Idea What to Use it For? So Why Would You Sign Up For Snapchat?

March 17th, 2014 · 29 comments

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The Amazing Roto-Mill

I’ve been toying with a (potentially) interesting thought experiment recently. Imagine you walk into a hardware store and a helpful clerk comes up to you holding a weird looking tool.

“Here’s our latest and greatest lawn care tool,” he explains. “It’s called a roto-mill. It has a reinforced auger head that spins at 1600 RPM.”

“Why do I need a roto-mill?”, you ask.

“I don’t know,” he replies. “I want you to buy it, take it home, dedicate a few hours every weekend to trying it out in your yard, seeing if you can find a use for it. Who knows, you might even find it fun.”

“But I have other things to do on the weekends,” you protest, “things I know are useful and things I know are fun.”

“If you don’t dedicate your time and attention to working with this roto-mill,” the clerk warns, “you might miss out on some benefit that we’re not thinking of now. I don’t see how you could afford such a risk in today’s age of modern yard tools.”

A (Contrived) Analogy

This dialogue, of course, is contrived, but you’d likely agree that if you were that customer, you’d walk out of the store, perhaps worried that the clerk was mentally disturbed.

What intrigues me, however, is that this is essentially the same conversation many have with high tech companies when they release their latest, greatest social media tools. If we replace the word “roto-mill” with “snapchat,” for example, the above suddenly seems more familiar and somehow less absurd.

But why?

I’m the first to admit that this thought experiment is not perfect: there’s money involved in buying a yard tool, but not so directly involved in trying an online tool; entertainment is perhaps not being valued fairly; etc.

But still, an interesting Monday afternoon thought…

(Image by Lance Fisher)

29 thoughts on “Would You Buy a Yard Tool if You Had No Idea What to Use it For? So Why Would You Sign Up For Snapchat?

  1. Richard says:

    “Ugg make wheel. Ogg not stupid. Ogg live just fine without wheel. Ugg stupid to make wheel. Wheel roll around and do nothing. Wheel have no use.” – ancient inscription on a cave wall

    I think we’ve managed to cover the entirety of human history in one blog post.

  2. Matt says:

    Its all about balance and what you need it for. There are times when snapchat can bring people together like pictures of a grandchild on the other side of the country or your son or daughters most recent proud accomplishments.
    It’s like the argument that some people do not want to use Twitter to see what their friend’s dog ate for breakfast. Yet it may have been helpful in bringing down heads of state.
    People were able to skype with their loved ones in the military during the most recent gulf war. This was not possible twenty years ago.
    Good analogy about tools because that is what they are be it a garden tool or social media. It’s the user that makes the difference.

  3. whatever says:

    Snapchat’s pitch is pretty clear to me. It’s a communication tool for your phone without the permanence. Messages will be generally deleted after specified time. There are technical ways to circumvent it but difficulty and cultural expectation are apparently enough.

    And hey, maybe it’s enough assurance to get some chick to sext you.

    1. Evan says:

      I think you’re being a little harsh on snapchat here:

      “I want you to buy it, take it home, dedicate a few hours every weekend to trying it out in your yard, seeing if you can find a use for it. Who knows, you might even find it fun.”

      While I agree that we should minimize the quantity of applications to which we dedicate significant portions of our time, I disagree that snapchat has no use to those who use it. Receiving a snapchat is between a text message and phone call on the intimacy scale; it also allows efficient communication of a feeling or scene you wouldn’t send via text message. And, of course, perhaps the first perverse use for snapchat that everyone thinks of when they hear “disappearing messages” would be sexting, but that’s a whole different pandora’s box. There is an opportunity cost associated with being the only one in a group of friends not receiving certain messages via facebook, snapchat, [ insert next social media tool ]. It’s up to the user, perhaps, to monitor if and when these tools interfere with becoming so good.

  4. Very good read, thanks.

    I think with social media tool, in specific, and with telecommunication gadget in large, we don`t want to miss out, we want to be within the loop! Feeling the possibility of being left out from the convos of what`s the latest “thing” is not comfortable.

    “We are connected but alone” sort of dialogue?

  5. Nicoleta says:

    What about LinkedIn? Do you consider it useful?

  6. John says:

    Snapchat seems to be tailor-made to give people a false sense of impermanence when sexting. You sext, then it’s gone. Well, except for those pesky screenshots. Oh, and every server between the sexter and the sextee.

  7. MLR says:

    Thank you! In the case of social media, though, even when one does understand what it’s used for there’s not much of a reason to use it.
    I think you have to think of social media like the latest trendy bar–even if people don’t think it’s the best or most fun use of their time, they are scared that they might be missing out if they pass it up.

  8. Mariya says:

    Cal, I think you’re missing out on a certain point: having Snapchat makes you look “cool” and “plugged-in” (pardon the pun) in comparison to your peers. You can now partake in sending funny pictures to each other, and when you don’t participate, you’re left out of a small, but not insignificant, part of people’s network. I don’t have Snapchat (or Whatsapp or any of that stuff) because I don’t have the co-requisite smartphone, but despite some minor inconveniences, that’s probably a good thing — those things are so addictive! And you’re expected to be available at all times. I didn’t have my laptop for a week, and that was my most relaxed week. If I had a smartphone, and by extension, Snapchat et al., while simultaneously being without a computer that would have never happened.

    1. Those were my thoughts as well. I don`t own a smartphone myself -too- and in almost every comparison between my circle members I feel connected more than they do! The on-going need for getting the latest “thing” and being on-call 24/7 is becoming a burden & consequently making them feeling out of reach and alone instead of the opposite (which these gadgets should be facilitating not hindering!)

  9. AS says:

    Some people enjoy experimenting with new technology, regardless of whether the benefits are certain. Every technology has a wave of “early adopters” who experiment and once they establish certain benefits the “late adopters” arrive en masse. Whether a person is an early or late adopter comes to personal preference. If you happen to be a late adopter, I don’t think it is fair to judge the early adopters for their preferences. Plus, without them, you would never know what the certain benefits of a new technology are.

  10. Brian says:

    If you find a hardware store giving out free rota mills for people to play around with, you’ll find a lot of people to take them. Your analogy is off because the cost of using snapchat is virtually zero, even in terms of time.

    A better analogy: Ben & Jerry’s are selling a new salmon flavored ice cream. Sounds weird to you, but all the kids are eating it. Plus, they’ve made it so that some dude follows you around whenever you go offering you a free sample whenever you want to try it. What are the chances that at some point you’re going to take him up on his offer?

  11. Brennan says:

    This thought experiment isn’t bad, but I wish you allowed for the fact that the roto-mill is useful to some people and the clerk should know those use cases. I think you’re right in pointing out that a lot of people will spend valuable time trying a new technology hoping to find a use for it, but plenty of people adopt new technology organically because they have a legitimate use for it.

    Just think about the kids who made snapchat popular. It’s unlikely they started using it because they felt compelled to find a use for this “new new thing.” Their intentions are usually purer and more utilitarian in that regard.

    1. Richard says:

      Good point, anyone who thinks something will be widely adopted just because it’s newer than the alternatives has not tried to start “the next Facebook”. There are fads but far more often people use something because they would feel a loss if they didn’t.

  12. Evan says:

    I think you’re being perhaps unnecessarily harsh here:

    “I want you to buy it, take it home, dedicate a few hours every weekend to trying it out in your yard, seeing if you can find a use for it. Who knows, you might even find it fun.”

    While I agree that we should minimize the quantity of applications to which we dedicate significant portions of our time, I disagree that snapchat has no use to those who use it. Receiving a snapchat is between a text message and phone call on the intimacy scale; it also allows efficient communication of a feeling or scene you wouldn’t send via text message. And, of course, perhaps the first perverse use for snapchat that everyone thinks of when they hear “disappearing messages” would be sexting, but that’s a whole different pandora’s box. There is an opportunity cost associated with being the only one in a group of friends not receiving certain messages via facebook, snapchat, [ insert next social media tool ]. It’s up to the user, perhaps, to monitor if and when these tools interfere with becoming so good.

  13. Eliza says:

    FYI, your “Some things I like” sidebar section isn’t loading right. The text loads, but the images/links don’t. (True for me even when I turned off most browser extensions.)

  14. Justin says:

    Good thought. It would be a better analogy to have the yard tool be free. No doubt most of us would take it home and try it, just because we don’t have to pay anything for it. But if people kept giving us free stuff, eventually we’d yell, “enough already, I’ve got too much stuff!” Which coincidentally is what many of us are feeling right now.

  15. Brett B says:

    The thought experiment is missing two very important features to make it comparable to Snapchat:
    1) Do all your friends have the Roto-mill and appear to have a great time using it.
    2) Do you get the Roto-till for free

    I’d try out a Roto-till under those circumstances.

  16. Rob Symonds says:

    It’s an interesting question. For the situation in the contrived analogy, I would say no. I have no interest in garden equipment (or snapchat).

    However, if we recast the question along the more general lines of “Would you make time to play with something interesting to you, even with no end goal in mind?”, then my answer would, more often that not, be yes.

    Are you suggesting that an activity needs to justify itself by its ability to move you predictably towards some known end?

  17. Tens of millions of people use snapchat, so it obviously provides some value. If millions of people used a roto-mill, including people I know, I would be definitely inclined to try it, especially if it’s free.

  18. Matt says:

    I think a much more appropriate analogy to something like snapchat, twitter, facebook, etc. is a language (verbal or programming). Almost all important information can be conveyed by any single language; no language (technically speaking) is better than another. Italians are able to communicate just as effectively as Germans, and C++ is just as Turing Complete as Perl is. But the difference is in the details. Different languages have different aesthetics — different priorities which they emphasize. While all languages can convey the same information, some are better suited to certain situations and can therefore be more efficient in those situations.

    Yes, you can get by just fine today only using email and phones, but other methods (like snapchat, facebook, etc.) may be better suited for certain situations. And just like a language, you can’t really understand how the differences play into a larger picture until you actually use them.

    Learn many languages, but only use the ones that make sense, and only in the situations where their benefits are maximized.

  19. Dale says:

    Cal’s post seems to be saying that there is often little to no benefit of being an early adopter. and that you are better off spending your time doing things that are pretty proven to have value.

    The question is not “should you or should you not try Snapchat?”

    Rather, the question is “Should I try Snapchat and ditch spending time with my family/doing deliberate practice for my craft/[insert valuable activity]? Or should I wait a few years and see if the Snapchat thing is still around and proven to be valuable?”

    I think early adopters like being early adopters for its own sake, which makes the usefulness of the things they test irrelevant; they’ll consider it time well spent anyway.

    But if you’re looking for a way to become successful in your field, looking for the latest and greatest app or tool is unlikely to be a productive use of your time.

    For example, a new writing app won’t make you a better writer; but the time-honored practice of….wait for it….writing, will make you better.

    My two cents anyway.

    1. Tom says:

      Ouch!!! I believe Dale points to the heart of the post.

  20. andrew says:

    I’m puzzled by how badly everyone seems to be misunderstanding the point of the post, which to me seems pretty clear. A roto-mill is hugely valuable to those who do a certain type of gardening or farming. But you would not invest in one without having a clear need first.

    And Cal’s whole point is that signing up for snapchat (or whatever) is NOT free. Our attention is a finite (often severely finite) resource. A number of studies have confirmed that popping over to check facebook or your email distracts you for much longer than you are actually doing those activities. Even more, there was one study (don’t have the link handy) which indicated that even having the *option* of being distracted reduced performance on tests requiring concentration and higher order reasoning. Every new thing you are signed up for is like a program that is installed and running in the background, eating up processor cycles, but invisible to the user. Of course some things running in the background are totally useful and worth the loss in performance, but you don’t want to stuff the computer with crap just because it *might* be useful.

    Paul Graham’s essay “Stuff” is relevant here: each physical thing you own takes up mental space, unconsciously and involuntarily. Owning things takes energy. This is why a cluttered house is exhausting. (Graham makes an exception for books, which give more energy than they take.)

    (What’s maybe interesting here is why such an innocuous point seems to touch such an emotional nerve. Some people seem not to just to disagree with the post but to be distinctly offended by it. Why?)

  21. Study Hacks says:

    Interesting discussion. Here are a few trends in the comments that caught my attention:

    (1) People derive significant value in being part of new technology trends and worry that they would lose significant value if they “missed out” on a big trend.

    (2) People do not perceive much cost to using network tools like Snapchat.

    I find the first observation interesting, mainly because it’s so specific to Internet applications owned by major technology conglomerates. (If I told you that you had to try Procter and Gamble’s new dish washing detergent because it could very well be the next big thing in dish washing, you wouldn’t care.)

    I think part of what makes Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget so subversive is that he flipped the table on this reality and points out the possibility that this cultural mindset is essentially constructed by these large companies for the express purpose of transforming you into an unpaid revenue source.

    The second observations is something I predict will change over time. I’m a firm believer that there is massive opportunity cost in the adoption of any technology that provides ubiquitous access to addictive personalized entertainment.

    Snapchat might not cost money, and it it might not require many consecutive minutes to use in a given session, but I think Andrew’s comment from above is on the mark.

    If we measured the true cost of these services more accurately, in other words, we’d likely demand a better sales pitch from the companies hawking them.

    1. Evan says:

      I like the push back here. What do you think about a “middle ground” of sorts, whereby a person will only adopt a social tool if it has been progressing over a long period of time (e.g. facebook after the first 3 or so years)? Once a new tool has been adopted, however, the old social media tool in existence gets deactivated/deleted.

      I think this discussion is definitely worth having, and I think you and Andrew are onto something about the hidden opportunity cost of adopting these social networks. However, I’m curious to know if you think adopting one social media tool would be controllable, or is even one too much?

  22. AC says:

    I agree that Andrew’s point hits the nail on the head.

    I recently shared holiday photos with my Mum by putting them all on Dropbox and emailing her a link. Now she can click that link and view the gallery when she has time.

    When my friend got engaged I sent him a picture of me giving him the thumbs up. I sent this to him by SMS.

    Snapchat doesn’t appear to offer me anything above what I can do with email and text messages. On a far more simplistic level, I don’t even know what Snapchat is. I had to look it up on Wikipedia once I’d read the title of this post.

    It sounds utterly pointless.

    Reading on Wikipedia:

    “Using the application, users can take photos, record videos, add text and drawings, and send them to a controlled list of recipients. These sent photographs and videos are known as “Snaps”. Users set a time limit for how long recipients can view their Snaps (as of March 2014, the range is from 1 to 10 seconds), after which they will be hidden from the recipient’s device and deleted from Snapchat’s servers.”

    I don’t see how the above adds value to my life at all. If I want to send someone an image, the chances are I would like them to be able to refer back to it again in the future because it means something to them, not just be deleted within seconds.

    Snapchat, for such a ‘big deal’ seems to be pretty odd.

    It seems more like a game that kids and bored office workers would play about with to amuse themselves than a serious communication tool that is enriching the lives of millions.

  23. 14025010 says:

    Interesting read, thank you.

    I wouldn’t quite compare a social media tool to a gardening tool, in it’s usefulness. Snapchat and other social media tools have revolutionised modern day communication, hardly a pointless endeavor.

    Nonetheless, I understand the analogy, we do often exaggerate the necessity of the latest app without really understanding the concept of the app itself.

  24. 14025010 says:

    Interesting read, thank you!

    I wouldn’t quite compare a social media tool to a gardening tool, in it’s usefulness. Snapchat and other social media tools have revolutionised modern day communication, hardly a pointless endeavor.

    Nonetheless, I understand the analogy, we do often exaggerate the necessity of the latest app without really understanding the concept of the app itself.

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