NPR logo It's Not You, It's Me: Breaking Up With Technology

Digital Life

It's Not You, It's Me: Breaking Up With Technology

E-fatigue: It's that mild, gnawing nausea that sets in once the marvels of a technology wear off. "It's like a bad marriage," one Facebook user says. hide caption

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Segway: A Case Study In The Hype Cycle

For a real-life example of how the hype cycle plays out, one need only look at the Segway.


First, there is excitement at hearing about an innovative technology. Remember when people first started whispering about the Segway in early 2001? Code-named "Ginger," it was rumored to be civilization-changing. Phase 2 is when users imagine untold uses for the new thing: In early 2002, as inventor Dean Kamen unveiled his two-wheeled personal human transporter, Apple founder Steve Jobs said the invention could be as significant to everyday living as the personal computer. Individuals, corporations and law enforcement groups rushed to buy them.


Disillusionment sets in. As one critic wrote in 2008 about the Segway, "I hear about the 'revolution in personal transportation'... and instead I get a golf cart cut in half with a gyroscope and scooter handlebars added."


Reportedly, Segway sales got off to a slow beginning. And the timeline of momentous events posted on the official Segway Web site ends in the summer of 2006. It's possible that the Segway is climbing — as fast as its two wheels will allow — up the slope of enlightenment to the plateau of productivity.


Presently, that plateau includes a smattering of people — mall cops, city tourists and the occasional businessperson whooshing past on the sidewalk.

Frustrated by Facebook, user Aaron Cohen has started his own group on the site. Composite image hide caption

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Frustrated by Facebook, user Aaron Cohen has started his own group on the site.

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E-fatigue: It's that mild, gnawing nausea that sets in once the marvels of a technology have worn off.

More and more, people are worn out by all the newfangled interpersonal communications inventions. The onslaught is relentless: Facebook, Twitter, iPhone applications, FriendFeed, Qik and on and on. Dub it download overload, innovation enervation, neoteric terror.

Karl Douglas Humm, 20, felt it earlier this school year. A sophomore at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., Humm says he signed up for Facebook as a senior in high school. Eventually he had about 560 friends, and he was spending a lot of time on the site. "At the beginning of last semester," he says, "I got really sick of it. It was annoying to have something to always check besides e-mail when I went online. I deactivated my account."

The maneuver succeeded. He enjoyed life — online and offline — more than he had in a while, he says. "I could concentrate on work more," says Humm. "I didn't procrastinate. It was something not to worry about."

For Maria Canul, 36, a public relations consultant in Sunnyvale, Calif., it's cell phones that "take the cake." At first, "it was a miracle to be able to make a call from pretty much anywhere" she says. "Before long, they get to be a major freaking pain."

'It's Like A Bad Marriage'

Aaron Cohen, 37, is feeling the e-fatigue. "I've been on Facebook for about two years," says Cohen, who works for an energy-efficiency nonprofit group in Portland, Ore. "My peak usage was about nine months ago, when I was on it literally all day."

Eventually Cohen found Facebook super-frustrating, and he began using it less and less. As he had with Friendster and MySpace before, Cohen says, he "saw a pattern": "first a rush of exhilaration — even an addiction — and then it slowly became tiresome, meaningless and superficial."

Cohen realized, "I had hundreds of friends — old connections, etc. — yet where were all my quality relationships? I was spending all my time on Facebook, and my quality of life was kind of going down the tubes."

E-fatigue is "like a bad marriage," he says. "You fall in love. You get married. And then the excitement wears off because there was so much new at first, and the relationship didn't grow like it should have. It gets stale, boring and you end up feeling hollow and blah. You eventually forget about it."

Social-networking sites "have to keep us coming back," Cohen says, "and I think providing more value is essential. Knowing my friend Megan just brushed her teeth just isn't cutting it."

Hype Cycles

To understand e-fatigue, perhaps it helps to think about hype cycles. Popularized by Gartner — a Connecticut-based information technology consulting firm — a hype cycle is a way of describing the various stages of public response to certain digital technologies. There are five phases in a hype cycle:

1) Technology Trigger. This is when the technology is first ballyhooed by the media. It could happen at the moment of breakthrough or via an orchestrated product launch.

2) Peak of Inflated Expectations. There is a widespread explosion of publicity that leads to giddiness and overexpectations.

3) Trough of Disillusionment. The technology doesn't live up to expectations and amid the disappointment, it falls out of favor.

4) Slope of Enlightenment. This is the period during which the true worth, and best use, of the technology is explored.

5) Plateau of Productivity. The technology finds its form. Its benefits are widely recognized. It becomes more reliable and finds an audience — maybe huge; maybe small.

When adapting to new technology, individual consumers apparently follow a similar personal arc.

In the current issue of Fortune magazine, reporter Jessi Hempel writes that e-fatigue may have also hit MySpace — right where it hurts. "Growth has leveled off at MySpace, the original mega-social-networking site with 130 million members," Hempel writes, "and it may wind up as a playground for music lovers." There are other examples of companies, such as Second Life — the multiuser site that allows people to live vicariously through avatars — that must constantly re-examine their purpose and potential. Adweek reports that Second Life's growth has slowed and it is attempting to broaden its appeal by making its site easier to use.

The Tyranny Of Technology

"The promise of a new technology," says Joel Garreau, author of Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means to Be Human, "is freedom from the tyranny of the old ways of doing things. When it turns out to be just a different form of tyranny, people are disappointed. It's a bait and switch."

But many new technologies, he adds, are overestimated in the short run and underestimated in the long run. It may just take time for Facebook, Twitter and other sometimes-annoying innovations to find their true worth.

Eventually, people hold on to technologies that enrich their lives and jettison the rest. Humm has learned to use Facebook for some communications and not for others. While he was off of Facebook for two months, he began hearing from friends back home in New Hampshire, and on his Florida campus, who wanted to know why they couldn't find him on the site.

The badgering offline became greater than the badgering online, so he signed up again this year. He says he is trying to use it more cautiously. "I mostly talk to a few close friends back home once in a while. And I keep in touch with my sister and relatives. I spent the winter term in Cambodia and everyone who was there shared photos on Facebook. It's nice to have those memories."

Cohen has also learned to use Facebook more sparingly. He has even started a group. It's called Facebook Fatigue.