It’s everywhere these days: in class, on the street, or at a conference -- as I found myself recently -- and people around you are glued to a PDA, iPad or other wireless device. You would think we have entered a new world of connectedness; making the Internet literally our assistant, teacher, confidant and, in many cases, friend. There is, it appears, no looking back as we glide into a new digital world.

But today’s fascination with wireless technology is not unprecedented if we look closely, and it may follow the same rules that have applied in the past. In short, it may be a fad and if we fail to recognize its patterns, we could be heading for a rude awakening.

Fads are Us

If we all have one thing in common, it’s our propensity to find and fall in love with fads. Like pet rocks, parachute pants and mood rings, most fads do little harm as they while away the hours we all have to spare.

Others have real and sometimes lasting impacts. Remember the early sixties when most kids under the age of 21 just had to have a surfboard, or dress and act like they had one? When surfing faded in the mid-sixties, real money had been spent on never-used surfboards, permanently sun-scarred noses and those adolescent pilgrimages to Newport Beach or Hawaii.

Technology-Based Fads Raise the Bar

Some fads have dramatic impact on the culture. Take, for example the CB radio craze of the 1970s. Popular with truckers and hobbyists since the fifties, CB became a fad in the mid-70s with release of record hits like 1975’s Convoy and movies like Smokey and the Bandit. Cadillac even offered factory-installed CB units, and First Lady Betty Ford’s CB “handle” was First Mama. By the early 80s the CB craze faded… with millions of used units at swap meets or tossed into the trash.

In both of these situations, fads captivated large segments of the culture, consumed millions of hours and dollars, but followed their historical paths; trigger, rise, frenzy, top-out and collapse.

The Dot-Com 90s: Fads Get Serious and Costly

During the 1990s, the Internet Dot-com frenzy took fads to a new level, flowering among businesses that poured billions of dollars into “internet” companies, often without so much as a business plan. When the Dot-com bubble burst, billions of those dollars along with the firms that had spent them disappeared virtually overnight. Remember Pets.Com and its sock puppet mascot? In its heyday, it paid US$ 1.2 million for a Super Bowl ad but lost money on virtually every online sale and failed, taking more than US$ 300 million with it.

This is important because we may be in the midst of another very expensive fad, one that could have dramatically greater impact on the culture.

Connectedness as a Fad?

Today, as wireless technologies invade virtually every part of the culture, and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter turn us all into “friends,” we have fallen in love with the constant connectedness of the wireless world. While the technology isn’t a fad, our love affair with it certainly is, and its potential downside is not well understood.

Sociologists will debate the cultural effects of Facebook and Twitter for generations, but the real impacts may be lurking in the reaction of businesses and government to this “irrational exuberance” as Alan Greenspan might have described it.

Everywhere, businesses are reorganizing their operations and assumptions based on “social media.” Governments as well are changing their basic objectives to better fit the new media.

Could the Wireless World have Feet of Clay?

With wireless devices selling millions, Apple stock passing US$ 600 per share, and Facebook nearing one billion users, one might think that our love affair with hyper-connectedness is here to stay. But research warns that recreational social media users are as susceptible to “user fatigue” as anyone else.

Indeed, statistics for Facebook suggest that users are spending less time in its core applications. If history is any guide, we can expect to see a decay of all recreational use of social media, wireless devices and applications. And it’s those recreational users driving the current craze.

As with the Dot-com bubble, the direct damage will be less to the end user and more to organizations banking too heavily that connectedness will continue to grow forever. If the connectedness bubble deflates, organizations too heavily invested in it may find themselves with expensively crafted solutions for a dramatically shrinking audience.

Some Thoughts Going Forward

So what can we do to avoid the impact of a connectedness slowdown? Here a few things that may help:

  1. Never base major business decisions on an assumption of continuity in anything people do for fun. All recreational activity is vulnerable to user fatigue and is highly likely to decay over time. Remember, most love affairs flame out, whether their object is Susie Jones in Algebra or new, glitzy technology.
  2. If you are selling something, make the wireless Internet a part but not the basis of your communications effort. Develop Internet and social media presence but not at the expense of more traditional -- and substantive -- ways of letting potential clients know what you can offer them. And finally, don’t assume that recreational users who do find you on the Internet will buy what you are offering.
  3. If you are in government, adopt the resources of the wireless and Internet world to the extent that they support fulfillment of your core mission. If you hear someone saying, “how can we change our processes to more fully integrate social media?” stop, lash yourself to the mast, and seek good government, not maximum technology immersion.

With the wireless world knocking at our door, these simple things can be very difficult to do, but if we ignore them, we may find ourselves lamenting our losses in a post-fad funk… with nobody to blame but ourselves. 

Title image courtesy of Brian A Jackson (Shutterstock).