My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Cluster Effects and Browser Support (IE-only social software is idiotic)

The number one justification i get for Internet Explorer-only support is that 90% of the population uses it. Let’s assume that to be true (even though only 52% of this blog’s readers use IE5 or 6). This argument rests on two assumptions:

1) An individual uses IE (and ONLY IE) on all computers that they use.
2) The only browser that matters is the individual’s browser.

When users cannot use an application as they move between work and home computers, between personal and school computers, etc., they get disincentivized. Yet, that’s a minor problem compared to #2. When it comes to social software, i’m not just concerned with what browser i use, but with what browser my friends use. I may not be concerned directly, but i need them to play along too to get validated and to make it fun. I don’t want to invest time and energy into making profiles or blogs that my friends can’t access for functional reasons, especially if there are alternatives that everyone can access.

You need cluster effects for social software to work. I need to be able to convince my most exploratory friends to try it with me and i need them to get super excited about it. Once i get them going, then i can convince the rest of my friends to follow along. If i can’t convince them, then i quickly lose interest and stop trying to convince everyone else in my social world. Not only does this make it hard for me to play along, it makes it hard for my close friends that i turned on to play along. Because if i lose interest, why should they keep spreading it to their friends? Etc.

For entertainment, let’s play a probabilities games… Let’s assume an even distribution of IE use (which is not true) and random friend connections. Let’s assume the average teen has 40 AIM buddies (low), but that only 10 really matter. In other words, 10 specific people are a critical baseline for my desire to become an active participant. (Note: the self-motivation to try it about early adopters does not take into consideration whether or not my friends will play along.) There’s a 34.9% (.9^10) probability that all of my close crucial friends are on IE. Let’s say that i’m in that important 35%. For it to take hold, all of my friends need to participate and pass on the enthusiasm virally. The probability that all of my important 10 friends are also in that critical 35% is… TERRIBLE (assuming random friendship connections). As network effects take hold and interest spirals, there will be critical nodes who simply don’t participate for structural reasons. That is bad bad bad for significant growth and sustainability.

Of course, in reality, browser use is not evenly distributed, friendship networks are not random and it’s not clear exactly how many crucial people one needs to participate. (Translation: the probability game was for kicks – a real analysis would require modeling network spreads and calculating stickiness.) There are likely to be quite a few IE-only clusters, but there are also likely to be quite a few clusters where crucial nodes use Firefox/Safari. (There are also likely to be a few where there are other browsers, but frankly, these are typically the geek networks that most mainstream developers are happy to write off.)

The important thing is that when you think about browser-access, you cannot simply think in terms of “90% market” because there’s a decent probability that many of those 90% have critical connections to people who are in the 10%. You need to think in terms of clusters, not individuals, because it is clusters that will make your application work. People participate when all of their friends can.

Corporations force this through regulation software, but this is not how consumer markets work. Launching a beta of AIM Pages on IE-only is foolish at best. Sure, a lot of people will try it, but if their friends can’t play, they won’t really get into it. Meaningful activity won’t spread unless entire clusters can play along. (Trying it out by creating an account is not the same as being active.)

Getting social applications going requires a baseline…. That baseline is that everyone can play along so that there’s no structural barrier to network spread. This is why mobile shit is so hard to get off the ground. This is why getting people to download applications for social interaction is such a barrier to participation. Replicating this problem on the Internet is foolish at best. It doesn’t matter if you’re launching in beta – first impressions really do matter. If you’re targeting an audience that’s IE-only (like corporations), go for it. But if you’re trying to go after a mainstream, younger audience, you’re being idiotic if you think you can get away with not supporting Firefox or Safari. (And besides, if you’re AOL, what on earth are you doing supporting Microsoft hegemony?)

Update: Apparently, AIM Pages is supposed to support Firefox, although i was unable to really do much and i have not bothered going back nor have i had time to file a proper bug report list. Folks in the comments have had better luck. My points about IE-only still stand, although they apparently should not be directed at AIM Pages. Of course, it cannot be a good thing that i found the site so broken and buggy that i believed it did not work in Firefox at all…

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16 comments to Cluster Effects and Browser Support (IE-only social software is idiotic)

  • Hey Dana, ‘Great meeting you at the Social Computing Symposium this past week. I personally totally agree with you that IE only is not a good way to go and your 0.9^10 analysis is a great point.

    I’m curious how far down the browser matrix you (or other readers) recommend service developers go. IE and Firefox makes sense; but what to do about browsers that don’t support an AJAX-style model?

    Take care–
    –Rob

  • Channing Moore

    One of the interesting things about software like this, is that you can do the math with real numbers. Based on the data that a company already has about its users, you can make predictions about what browser(s) you should support.

    I mean, you can make models based on assumptions about how user connections and browsers, sure; but if you already have the data, why not use it? People who model infectious disease transmission would kill for the kinds of data that a site like MySpace has on the interconnection of its userbase.

    There was an interesting piece in Slate a few months back talking about the difficulty Nielsen has had in estimating website traffic. The basic upshot is that sure, site counters are far from perfect; but getting data from every single page view is still better than sampling a tiny chunk in a not-so-random fashion.

  • Wound’t it also depend on the desired audience? Because when you take it away from a desire for a mass audience, the “velvet rope/ David Carson design” factor might kick in. If a community is only open to those who know the language, or can figure out how to access the community, isn’t it given more value (at least for awhile?).

    Or, to put it another way, how long will Flickr and Gmail be in “beta”?

  • Those cluster effects are very important… Consider an (admittedly anecdotal, but all true) example:

    I’m currently 22 and I’m a geek, so I’m not in the target market for these things. (Which is partly why they think they can ignore those browsers). But, for the last couple of years, whenever friends have come to me asking about their browser/spyware problems, I’ve had them switch to Firefox, and aside from the occasional compatibility problem, they’ve always been happy with the switch. I’ve no doubt they’ve then recommended the switch to other, even less geeky friends.

    And further, I’ve switched my family’s computer over to Firefox, so my little sister (15) and my little brother (13) both use Firefox, even though they’re not geeks by any means… And I know for a fact that a number of my little brother’s friends use Firefox as well (again, through the cluster effect of recommendations). Those two are right in the target demog’s, and they’re not going to use a system that requires them to load up IE; and as you say, there only have to be a couple friends in each group who don’t use IE for the group as a whole to switch to a different system…!

    So I’ve rambled, but all I want to say is: It’s true! That 90% figure is meaningless, and Firefox (and Safari for that matter) are more and more being used by teens — they are, after all, the next wave of adopters after the geeks!

    -peter

  • I totally agree with you — it doesn’t make sense to design your web site to support only one browser.

    And just to be clear: I have never heard Microsoft suggest to anyone that they make their website IE-only. I know that http://www.microsoft.com and research.microsoft.com both support multiple browsers, too.

  • dario

    if i’m not mistaken, it’s the reverse. AIM Pages is optimized for Firefox (according to some folks who develop modules for aim pages) and chokes on IE sometimes. if it’s not working on yours it might be a certain build of Firefox.

  • AIMPages currently supports all of the recent Mozilla browsers and IE (and we dearly want to support Safari ASAP). If anyone is having trouble with any of the Mozilla browsers, ping me.

    We want to support as many browsers as possible and are limited only by the speed with which our small team can work around browser bugs and feature differences in DOM support.

  • I’m using AIM Pages fine on a Mac using Firefox and a PC using Firefox.

  • john

    AIM Pages works perfectly fine on Firefox.

  • AIM Pages *does* support Firefox. In fact, our experience on Firefox right now is significantly better than our IE experience.

  • Sceptic

    Even if the 90% figure and 10/40 were true, do you really think people will point-blank refuse to use an app that doesn’t work with their preferred browser? I use Opera 95% of the time, but if it doesn’t work I fire up Firefox or IE. It’s not a big deal

  • Jake

    I can use AIM Pages with Firefox on a Mac and it works just fine. What are you talking about, Dana?

  • Hi,

    Tried Aimpages in IE, Netscape firefox on both my PC and my daughters MAc.. no problems??

  • b

    Well, I was working on a good abstract for my PhD, but you made a better one than what I could imagine ;o)
    Stickiness, centrallity, clustering, transitivity, focus-relevancy, etc. There is more to that than I would have guessed when starting. Promise: I’ll send my drafts to you when I am ready (two years from now, no worries about your quals).
    About Firefox users, they are only 10% but they are those who surf the web most–thence they represent a far larger share of the trafic. But your readers might be biased, too.

  • rex

    I have listed below recent stats from one of my companies’ websites:

    Browser Hits Percent
    Internet Explorer 863278 86.26%
    Googles’ Firefox 65951 6.59%
    Safari 45116 4.51%
    Mozilla 14404 1.44%
    Netscape 12038 1.20%

    Total 1000787 100.00%

    The race isn’t even close. It’s all about supply and demand. It’s an IE world as far as browsing is concerned, in much the same way that it’s a Google world as far as search goes.

    I’m in the position where I see a ton of website stats, and I would like to point out that you rarely hear “IE-Only” complaints from website creators, managers, owners, etc.

    “IE-Only” complaints are ‘only’ coming from a few anti-Microsoft zealots (or pro Google zealots, depending how you slice it), and the few that are choosing to believe the hype.

    A storeowner doesn’t care what car you drive to come his/her store to shop as long as you are coming to shop. You won’t see the owner of Nordstrom’s running out to the parking lot every 30 minutes to check and see how many BMW’s vs. Benz vs. Fill-in-the-blanks are outside. It’s a stupid notion, and so is the whole browser battle discussion from a business owner perspective.

    In the same regard, website owners don’t care what browser you use to visit their site, as long as you are showing up.

    In fact, my day-to-day observation of website traffic stats rarely includes a peak at “the browser war” stats (even that hyped stat term is a joke). I am more likely to check browser stats after reading silly posts like this one.

    I will support the most popular browser, and if it makes sense economically then I will support the next in line. According to the non-inflated stats that I see, it doesn’t make sense to invest the time to support Google’s Firefox, Mozille

    People need to wake up and smell the economics. Microsoft is a great company. Does it make the best software, in many ways yes, and in some ways no. Does Apple make better software than MSFT? Yes! They have always made better software (for 30 years and counting). It’s never been about better or worse. It’s about business, economics, utility, supply and demand.

    All of you MSFT haters are a bunch of inbred cannibals. Microsoft has had more impact on the power of the world’s economy than any other single company out there over the past 30 years.

    MSFT saved us from several other companies vision of what computing should be for the masses.

    The Internet would not be what it is today if it were not for Microsoft. Will Google dethrone Microsoft? Did Microsoft dethrone IBM? All three companies are fairing quite well today.

    I do think that the Internet, Google, Firefox, et al. are good for Microsoft. They constantly help to wake the company up and force them to re-align themselves with reality instead of the “Redmond is the center of the Universe” philosophy that tends to take over every 10 years at Microsoft.

    I like Google and I like Microsoft. I just don’t see why people get so RELIGIOUS about this crap. It’s just software, stocks and money. This stupid debate is worse than Middle-eastern conflict. I choose both Google and Microsoft. It’s a win-win for me (but obviously not for the media). I could go on… but I will cease.

    Rex

    P.S. Microsoft spawned the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation which Warren Buffet determined is the best to give his $44 Billion to. Bill’s goal is only to try to do what no other person or group has done in recent times.

    {Invest in Eyegloo}

  • saying “I can use AIM Pages with Firefox on a Mac and it works just fine” is missing the point (i think).

    look back to how instant messenger systems are evolving… you either have to make a choice as to which one you use (ie your friends already use it), run multiple clients, or hope that someone works on some software bridge.

    at the moment, it is not in the software manufacturers’ interest to combine systems? software lock-in (user numbers) is what counts.

    Are we seeing the same bunker mentality with social software developments?

    {cf. in the UK, early mobile phone users only had the ability to send SMS txt messages to people on the SAME network }