Matthew Caldecutt’s first cell phone was the size of a brick. During the mid-’90s, as a teenager in Rego Park, Queens, he bought an Audiovox model from Verizon—a clunker of a phone that could make calls and send text messages. Most of his friends didn’t have mobile phones yet, but they did have computers, so he’d duck in and out of Internet cafes around the city to fire up the earliest messaging programs, like ICQ (have you heard of that one?), and chat online to arrange plans. Even back then, text was Mr. Caldecutt’s preferred method of communication; he anticipated that, like him, most of us would hardly ever actually talk on our fancy mobile phones, and choose to communicate almost solely through text messages, emails and chatting services. “I still barely use my cell phone as a cell phone,” Mr. Caldecutt, now 31, told the Observer from his midtown office.
Mr. Caldecutt sports thin-framed spectacles and a sparse red beard and currently works as a publicist for Trylon SMR, a public relations firm that specializes in representing technology, media and telecommunications companies. He practically made a career out of testing and trying out new online communication systems, Web applications and trendy mobile phones. Like his fellow “early adopters”—the passionate Web nerds who try out the latest Internet tools and wacky gadgets—he has helped to shape our future with technology. We might think they are regular geeks, clamoring for beta invites publicized on blogs like TechCrunch and Mashable, itching to test out Internet platforms and programs while they’re still in the embryonic stage. But early adopters not only help spread the word about a new product—like a army of nerdy PR agents for the Internet—they also help develop it by offering feedback to its creators. They were the ones flashing their new iPhone long before it became the hottest tech toy on the market, and emailing Apple that the map function had inaccurate information. They bugged you to join Facebook (META) ages before everyone from grandma to the president was signing up for it, and told its developers to make the “is” in status updates optional. “As soon as it becomes available, I’ll try it,” Mr. Caldecutt said. He has used hundreds of Web services you’ve probably never heard of, like Dodgeball, a mobile social networking software founded by two New York University students that will text your friends your exact location.
Yet more and more people in their teens, 20s and even 30s seem to be making early adoption a new, cheap hobby (most beta invites for Web products are free). “Some of the training wheels are off,” Mr. Caldecutt said. “There’s still a long way to go. [Some Web products] are complicated to use and, in many ways, they are very geeky. But among the younger, hip segment of the population, the bracket has gotten wider.” And they are communicating about these new Internet tools through social networking sites—Twittering away their complaints about Twitter—to help get the rest of us on the bandwagon.
Seth Godin, the best-selling author and self-described “agent of change” whose latest book is titled Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, is a kind of evangelist for early adopters. “Today the people who got made fun of in high school—they are the ones who matter so much. They’re the ones shaping new technology that diffuses to the masses,” he told The Observer in a phone interview from his Westchester County office. “The reason you need to care about early adopters, even if you aren’t one, is because this small group of people are going to change your world.”
Of course, there are all kinds of early adopters; Mr. Godin explained that you can find them in every industry, from environmentalists to fashion fetishists. “Women who read Vogue are early adopters,” he told The Observer. “They are the ones who wait in line at Bergdorf’s to buy the new Manolos. And those same women might be early adopters in that they bought cell phones at 6 years old.”
According to a theory called Diffusion of Innovations, formulated by Everett Rogers in his 1962 book of the same name, early adopters make up 13.5 percent of the population. “Diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system,” he wrote. Now that these social systems are online, and more young people are joining them, the word gets around a little faster than it did back in the ’60s, when we relied on newspapers and advertisers to tell us about the most exciting new innovations. No one has estimated what the percentage of population might be considered early adopters now, but it’s growing all the time.
“Because there are so many more online communities and social networking programs and everything, it’s probably a lot easier for a typical, mainstream, everyday technology user to know someone who is an early adopter,” said Whitney Hess, a user experience designer who helps companies make their product more friendly for the mainstream. “They’re hearing about the evolution of early products much more than they used to. Everyone wants to know about the latest and greatest.”
Internet companies pay attention to early adopters because they basically operate as free developers, helping to make their product better. Some early adopters will champion a shiny new Web product on their blog or Twitter accounts, only to abandon it and take the mainstream folks along with them. (Remember Friendster? Buh-bye!) So companies need to keep early adopters interested by staying relative and innovative—and maybe offering discounts or rebates once the product officially launches, too. (Think of when Steve Jobs offered a $200 refund to all those early adopters who bought the first, very expensive version of the iPhone.)