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Bursting the Bubble: How Culture Shock Is Good for Techies

girl with bubble on hair

Need a bigger bubble. Photo by Christine Cavalier

Three recent incidents, yesterday’s being the most shocking, have ripped a hole in my cozy tech bubble. They were painful, but they were good for me.

I consider myself an educator. Educating Internet users about human behavior, media psychology and sociology is the purpose behind this blog and the main focus of my social media consulting work for marketing departments and other business leaders.

Probably just like you, I spend most of my time connected. Like a lawyer navigating the legal system, I’m a techie that adapts tech to fit my life. A lawyer isn’t afraid of getting sued; I’m not afraid of new technologies. I can see past the user interface and into the design model (and sometimes get quite annoyed with it). I was practically born into tech; I speak the language. Natural acumen combined with constant application makes (most of) my tech-enabled time online and off go smoothly.

This is great, but the downside is that I forget what life is like for the majority of people. (This is not so great if I consider myself an educator.) So you can imagine the shock when I’m out and about in the world and I interact with natives who don’t speak the language. Read on to see what happened, what I learned, and why I want you to burst your own bubble every once in a while, too.


The first “Say what?!” shock came a few weeks ago when a fellow grade-school mom and I were chatting about cell phones for kids. She had asked me what model phone we bought my 10 year old. I told her, and I directed her also to my article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about kids and cell phones. As we were chatting about the perils of Internet access on devices used by grade-schoolers, this mother, who is a first grade teacher herself and the same age as I am, tells me that her phone has Internet access but no data plan. As I was looking over her phone, she shows me a button on the screen that connects the phone to the Internet. The button is in a convenient spot, obviously, which means it gets hit by mistake often. Each time the Internet gets activated, US$2.00 in data charges go on her bill. She gets charged the 2 bucks even if she shuts down the mobile browser immediately. The design of her phone would encourage, nay, force, accidental or intentional hitting of this button.

I asked her if she called the provider and asked if this phone could be blocked from data access. She said that when they bought the phones and the plan, the provider made it seem like that all phones on the plan needed to have the data access. Her husband needs the data access for work, so she didn’t “make any waves” with the provider. Now that a few months have gone by and she’s seen the ridiculousness on her bill, she started thinking she needed to buy a new phone, one without data access.

abc magnet letters

Tech Basics. Photo by Christine Cavalier

This is when I started getting really annoyed. This is great for the phone company, right? They get to collect at least $20/month in data charges from this woman for her innocent mistakes and the (probably intentional) bad design of the phone. And now she thinks she has to spend more money to save on the charges. I told her the provider’s attitude and charges were totally wrong, to call and demand the phone be blocked from data access immediately, and tell them to forgive the other mistake charges (which are easily identified by the numbers: 0 seconds access time and 0 sites visited). I was so pissed that this provider would take advantage of their own customer like that. It’s ridiculous to tell (or even hint to) customers that your mobile service infrastructure can’t block certain phone numbers/phones from data access. This (major, national band) provider just wanted to get that extra money out of the pockets of the under-educated. I can’t tell you how much that pissed me off. I haven’t followed up with her yet but I hope she did call the provider and “gave them a piece of her mind” (as my mother used to say).


The next small incident is kind of typical, but still just as shocking. I was with another fellow grade school parent in my town. This person is starting a small business and needed online marketing advice. I usually have the wisdom to stay away from these quagmires, but this started out as a friendly request. We worked out an agreement and I started working on a few things. First thing we did was do a Google search on the company name. My client was shocked that his company name wasn’t at the top of “the list” (read: search results). He had paid for an online Yellow Book listing and assumed that meant he would come up in a Google search. I asked him to give me the URL of the Yellow Book listing, but he didn’t know what a URL or a website address was or how to find his account again. We moved on to making a Facebook page. Blank stares ensued. At every turn, I was shocked back to this reality: There are some people who are my age who know ZERO, NADA, ZIP, ZILCH about the Internet and/or the Web. If this guy thought “AOL” meant “The Internet,” then he’d be one step ahead of the dark place he was in now. It’d be a wrong step, but at least a step toward a basic level of understanding. But no, he isn’t even close. I very rarely run into this total lack of familiarity, especially since I don’t deal regularly with people over 55, but this guy was not even over 45.

Broken connection

Broken Connection by Tanakawho on Flickr

Now I’m in the position of having to rethink the terms of the agreement.Working with very basic users isn’t where my usual consulting hours are spent. Also, online marketing may not be the right fit for this person. If he can’t do a semblance of maintenance on his business profiles, then he shouldn’t be fooling around with them. Explaining this to a very new user, though, is quite difficult. New users think there can be a fair, one-time exchange of money for “setting up my web page,” but online community building is a constant business task, like paying the bills and filing papers. I can’t possibly be this one-person company’s community manager. He doesn’t have that kind of money and I don’t have that kind of time. He is so, SO far away from understanding this that I have to brainstorm up some metaphors and pray he understands, because now I have real, local, social ties at stake.


The third incident happened yesterday at the Philadelphia Flower show. A middle aged couple was taking pictures of each other with a little point-and-shoot camera by a big display of flowers. I offered to take a picture of the two of them together. As I turned the camera’s orientation in order to take a vertical shot, the gentleman corrected me: “No, don’t take it that way, it messes it up. It doesn’t work.” As an experienced photographer, my first interpretation of this man’s pleas were “Do they not like their full body pose? Am I too short to take a flattering shot of them?” In order to save time, I took a horizontal shot and just said quickly, “let me take this shot, it’ll be good,” and I snapped the vertical. The man came over, happy to see the horizontal shot, but then a look came over his face when he previewed the vertical shot. “See?” he asked, showing me the back of the camera. “See? Every time I take a shot like that, it does this.”

Can you guess at this point what was happening? Yes? Then you must deal with what I call “regular” people more than I do. Don’t get what’s happening? Neither did I. It took me a few seconds of standing there, staring at the back of the screen. “See?” he said again, as if something was plain as day and I was blind. “See? It makes it go like that.” He points his finger to the skinny, vertical, picture. Finally it dawned on me. “Oh!” I said. “Oh. No! That’s OK. It’s OK. That’s just how the camera displays the picture. It’s just showing you the picture that way so you can see the whole thing. When you upload it to your computer it will look normal.”

vertical orientation cell phone display, spiderman

A vertical orientation display of Spidey. Photo by Christine Cavalier

“Oh,” he said, his tone deflated. “Oh, I did not know that.” When he said this I realized that this man probably doesn’t have a computer, probably never, ever uploads his pictures, and probably only views his pictures via his camera screen. Instead of explaining the whole world of uploading, vertical orientation, photo printing, photo editing, photo storage and display, etc., etc., I just said, “Yes, it’ll be OK. It looks nice.” “OK. Thank you!” he said, and I hauled ass out of there to a different part of the show. I didn’t offer to take pictures for anyone else for the rest of the day. My friend is a scrapbook supplies vendor and she’s told me how most people don’t know how to upload their pictures off their phones or their cameras, that they delete earlier ones to take new ones when they run out of space, but I never could get my mind around that. It was just crazy talk to me. Now I know, intimately, what my friend deals with daily while she’s trying to sell to these people. She has no choice but to educate them, especially since most scrapbooking is done on your local harddrive with special scrapbooking software.

These three frustrating encounters remind me of how little progress we’ve made as a society, and I get quite annoyed. It makes me want to never, ever, go out and interact with the public again. But go out I must. As an educator, daily interaction with people who don’t know my world is not only part of my job, but part of my belief system. Having a handle on the knowledge level of the general public (and within specific age groups) is key for effective teaching. We techie folks, fortunately or unfortunately, are all educators. If we want technology to further the advancements in all aspects and levels of society, we must educate our neighbors, our friends, our family, our strangers. You can sit in your bubble and choose to never go out again, but that will mean your bubble will get smaller and your air will run out. We’ve all seen this happen to some start-ups. Heck, all the business books teach us to bring in “fresh blood;” they insist that differing perspectives make a product/company stronger. I think the Brafmans, in their recent book Click, talked about how Broadway shows either worked or didn’t, based on the percentage of new producers and talent in the mix. We need to get ourselves shocked once in a while, back into someone else’s reality of fear, ignorance, innocence and maybe just plain laziness, so we can work on designs and education that grows our own technology bubbles.

In summary, I’ve learned these things that I otherwise wouldn’t have learned if I didn’t get culture shocked:

1. Others need help hacking tech design. Like a lawyer who know isn’t intimidated by the legal system, it behooves you to educate people on how to take full advantage of technology. Bonus lesson: More info in the arsenal about how end users are (poorly) dealing with mobile.

2. Find young people in town that can help set up social media profiles for small businesses in the area. Controversial solution in the techie circles, I know. But I’m on the front lines of this battle and frankly, the young people can bridge the gap for little money. Bonus lesson: Ideas on how to educate the kids of these local business people.

3. Don’t offer to take pictures for people unless you are willing to spend a few more minutes explaining some concept about digital photography management. Bonus lesson: Make up some cards to hand out with educational photography links.

What are some recent WTF moments you’ve had with end-users, and what were the lessons you learned that will make you stand out as an educator, lifehacker and designer? Please share in the comments.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Otir 10 March 2011, 1:57 pm

    “Working with very basic users isn’t where my usual consulting hours are spent”, then you can always redirect those to me. And then when I have gotten them off the ground I’d send them back to you 😉

    • PurpleCar 10 March 2011, 2:46 pm

      I will definitely do that, Otir. You have more unlimited patience and I can tell you’d be a great educator for these users!

  • Larry Kollar 10 March 2011, 2:00 pm

    You must be talking about Verizon, they’re notorious for that. Internal to VZ, I’m told, it’s called the “$2 button.” I never tried it, but a little SuperGlue in the tiny gap between the button & case should fix that little problem.

    Like you, I’ve been shocked at the lack of depth of people whom I would think are smart enough to know better. My dad, at age 50, signed up for classes at a community college and ended up writing a database program that his company continued using for some years after he retired. So I also have less patience than perhaps I should for people who say “I’m too old to learn this.”

    • PurpleCar 10 March 2011, 2:44 pm

      I actually think it was AT&T but I’m sure all the major providers do this. It’s probably some sort of collusion! I love the superglue idea, I’ll pass it on. I had no idea this was even a problem, as I was sitting in my “unlimited data” tech bubble. Thanks for the eye opening. $2 Button, indeed! Makes me want to shoot some thing.

      Also, recent research shows that neural pathways are constructed all the way through middle age, maybe even later, as we learn new things. Which in turn makes our brains ready to learn more things. (Previously researchers believed that neural pathways were contructed only in utero and that was that). So yes, the “old dog, new tricks” excuse is just not based in science… and more likely just an attempt to avoid one’s fears.

      • mike 21 March 2011, 8:41 pm

        This actually happens to A & J all the time w/ AT&T. At first, I called to get credits. Then, I asked if the ‘Net access could be disabled. Sure, no problem. But, then multimedia text msgs would also be disabled. Dealbreaker for teens.

        I gave up for now, since they’ll prob have smartphones soon — C already does. I figure I’ll get my money back from the class action lawsuit settlement fund!

  • Chrissie DiAngelus 10 March 2011, 3:58 pm

    LMAO. This post had me roaring with laughter several times! I am like you. My WTF encounters are when small businesses think that FB = online presence. OR have a website from 1999 that they think = online presence. OR (worst of all) can’t be swayed to understand that social media is a part of strategic marketing. Hell, their idea of marketing is still defined by the word advertising. Sheesh! I find myself pondering if this person/business is worth my time. If there’s an emotional attachment, I will help them (a little) understand what to me is obvious. But then, I’m probably more of an early adopter than I think I am. But at the end of the day, people and businesses have to WANT to get it and have to want the help and have to get that they do indeed need to pay for the help (unless maybe it’s your baby boomer dad). They have to have some investment.
    Such a great post. Must share and RT.
    ~Chrissie D. @londonmodgirl

  • Bart 5 April 2011, 11:07 am

    Re: These three frustrating encounters remind me of how little progress we’ve made as a society, and I get quite annoyed. It makes me want to never, ever, go out and interact with the public again.

    I have parents on the low end of technophilia. Mom surfs the net, does email, has a bare-bones cell phone, and plays solitaire on her PC. Dad surfs the net, remembers to vigorously check his antivirus programs, does email, and does NOT use his cheapie cell phone. And they’re both quite happy. Mom’s retired, Dad’s near retirement, and neither of them have much need OR DESIRE to learn the latest gadgets. I became an iPhone crackhead last year, and my father watched in dismay as I was checking the machine every few minutes. Finally he made me turn the machine off. I was in Florida to see him, after all, not type with someone 1,000 miles away. For him, the machine was off-putting, getting in the way of two-way communication with his son, who was in the room with him. Yes, he sends me email, but if he wants to have a relaxed, meaningful conversation, he won’t do it through electrons. Mom barely uses email at all…and they’re both quite happy that way.

    It’s not progress if it adds no value to your life.


    • PurpleCar 5 April 2011, 12:04 pm

      Well said.

      Your story reminds me of gaming in our house. It’s come to the point where my 5
      year old son is almost more skilled than me. My husband thinks I should spend
      some time during the day practicing my controller skills. If I have any time
      during the day, though, I’m not going to spend it on the diminishing returns
      project of improving controller skills. I have a plethora of other activities
      that are more worthy of my free time. I’ll just have to live with the fact that
      my little boy will kick my ass at any video game soon and forever. I wish I held
      my own against him until he was at least 10, but there ya go. I’m just not
      interested in keeping up.

      Your parents don’t seem interested in keeping up. When their lives get to be
      inconvenienced by remaining pretty much off-line, then perhaps they will change.
      I don’t see when that may happen, as I don’t see where I’ll end up in some sort
      of dystopian hostage situation where the only escape is to navigate a virtual
      world with mad controller skillz. Until then, I’ll forgive myself my lack of
      effort and continue on with activities I enjoy. Your parents are probably taking
      the same gamble.


      -Christine Cavalier