General Public Ain't Cool by Kaila Colbin , Monday, April 13, 2009
GPAC. I've heard it's the mantra of a certain television network; for all I know, it's the mantra of them all. It stands for "General Public Ain't Cool," and it's what the TV execs say when they get pitched an idea that's "edgy" or "dangerous." Don't try to be too cool, because the general public ain't there with you.
The phrase may sound a bit condescending. Or a lot condescending. But you could also choose to look at it differently: if you're playing in a mass market, what's important isn't what you think is cool; it's what they think is cool.
Obvious, right? But not so easily implemented.
For example, The Register recently reported that Gmail has launched its new search tool "in a move to degeekify its email service." How do you access the tool? You enable it via Google Labs, which has to be activated in your account. So here's the question I've got for Gmail: how many non-geeks-who-secretly-love-to-fiddle-with-Google-Lab-settings did they have represented in the focus group?
Or take FriendFeed. Last week Michael Arrington described it as "the coolest app no one uses." That's not an oxymoron. It's what happens when the marketing team fails to take a step back and ask, "Would we rather be right, or would we rather be happy?" It's GPAC.
To make matters more confusing, there's a lesser-known corollary to GPAC: GPDKWIW, or General Public Doesn't Know What It Wants. This is the phrase that gets invoked by anyone trying to get away with introducing something cool to the masses. "You can't listen to your customers!" is the rallying cry of GPDKWIW. "Why, if Mark Zuckerberg listened to his customers we wouldn't have News Feed!" True. We wouldn't have News Feed (and we wouldn't have been utterly PRIMED for Twitter). Porsches would look like Volvos. And you can forget about your iPhones.
The problem with GPDKWIW, of course, is that the chance of being that one-in-a-billion visionary who knows what people want before they do is... well, one-in-a-billion -- even if you've been that visionary before. Sure, we wouldn't have News Feed, but we wouldn't have Beacon or that crummy new watered-down-Twitter home page either.
In the movie "He's Just Not That Into You," the character Gigi sums up the GPDKWIW situation succinctly: "All my friends used to tell me about how things might work out with these dipsticks because they knew someone, who knew someone, who dated a dipstick just like mine. That girl ended up getting married and living happily ever after. That's the exception and we're not the exception -- we're the rule."
So the general public ain't cool and doesn't know what it wants. No matter; the good news for all of us in the search industry is the third axiom: GPLS, or General Public Loves Search.
In my book, Twitter would have a defensible argument for turning down a billion dollars because it has a valid search proposition (not that a billion dollars have been offered, and not that it SHOULD turn it down). Facebook, on the other hand, should get out while the getting's good.
The general public may not be cool, and it may not know what it wants, but it knows what it loves.
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