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June 7, 2010, 11 a.m.

When web users cross the Gladwell 10,000-hour standard

Derek Powazek has a piece that tries to bring the Malcolm Gladwell Outliers thesis — that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master anything — and apply it to the explosion of content brought about by the Internet:

Ladies and gentlemen, we have the internet — the biggest no-experience-required open mic night ever created. It connects us all, whether we’ve put in 10,000 hours or ten.

It’s only because of extremely fortuitous timing that the world was spared my 16-year-old Beatles impersonation. I put in those hours before everything was digital and duplicated for free, forever. Make no mistake, if MySpace had been around when I was 16, my furtive recordings would still be haunting me.

Maybe it’s only because of fortuitous timing that we even expect anyone to be good at anything now. We were spared hearing The Beatles when they were new. There’s no record of Shakespeare’s embarrassing early attempts. No MP3s of Bach’s school choir. Maybe if we were more used to seeing people suck before they get good at something, we wouldn’t expect perfection from day one.

Derek’s right. (Even though I’m a bit suspicious of the random roundness of Gladwell’s 10,000-hour number. Lots of bands play a lot of gigs without becoming the Beatles; lots of programmers spent lots of time on computers without becoming Bill Gates.) The ease with which the Internet exposes less-than-professional work forces us to reset our expectations about what makes something worth public display. That’s a problem for some old-school journalists, who think the entire universe should be filtered through a copy desk before seeing the light of day.

But what if there’s a different implication for online news? Here’s Derek again:

Suppose Gladwell is right and it really does take 10,000 hours to master something. Let’s set the bar lower. Let’s say that it takes half that time to be merely good at it. And just to be generous, let’s say half again just to not suck at something. That would mean it takes 2,500 hours of practice to just not be awful.

Now ask yourself, what have you done for 2,500 hours? That’s 104 days. 14 weeks of constant practice. Just under four months of nonstop repetition.

Very few of us have spent that much time doing anything besides sleeping or watching TV.

Well, I can think of one area where lots of people are crossing 10,000 hours of time invested: using the Internet.

And unlike watching TV — where the rewards for your couch labor amount to mastery of your Tivo and better control of your remote — after 10,000 hours online, you’re a vastly smarter Internet user than you were at the start. You’ve stopped using Internet Explorer. You’ve abandoned the embarrassing email address. Your Google-fu is finely honed. Maybe you’ve messed around with RSS. Maybe you’ve got a smartphone and know how to swim between apps. In other words, the return on time investment isn’t just important for creators of technology; it’s also important to its users, who move past early awkwardness to feeling more like natives.

One recent study estimated Internet users spend 17 hours a week online; another one found for teens the number is 31 hours. At that rate, teens would get to 10,000 hours in a little over six years.

What will this mean for news? I won’t pretend to know. But I think anyone creating content online will have to think about how their products should shift as their audience gains increased mastery of the medium. Just as sites are slowly moving away from dial-up-safe sites to adjust to a broadband reality, sites will have to reckon with a savvier pool of users.

Part of that would include now-basic moves like search-engine optimization and social media, since Internet veterans are less likely to simply default to a news organization’s homepage as a point of entry. Will full-text RSS become more important as more users start using RSS or RSS-like feeds? What new navigation regimes will evolve to meet their needs of users aware of all their other options online? How will advertising evolve in a world where more people are using ad-blocking or Flash-blocking software, things previously the domain of nerds like me?

Who knows? But it’s worth remembering how much your audience is a moving target — one that is learning and practicing and getting better at this Internet thing all the time.

POSTED     June 7, 2010, 11 a.m.
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