If you build it, they will come — but when they arrive, don’t be surprised if they do something totally different than you intended.
In the pharmaceutical industry, it’s called off-label use, and it happens when doctors and patients realize a drug that’s been approved as a therapy for one condition is also effective at treating another. In the technology world, it happens all the time, and recognizing it can be the difference between making billions and going out of business.
That’s what it was for Burbn, a not-too-popular app that mashed up location check-ins with social gaming. Burbn’s creators realized that its users only seemed to care about one minor function of the app, its photo-sharing feature. So they tossed all the rest of it and renamed what was left Instagram. That turned out well.
Other times, off-label use is a sign that the technology in question has arrived — that people are spending so much time with it, they’ve become power users who reshape it to meet their own needs. Again, smart companies embrace this. Think of Twitter, which took much of its early product direction from user innovations like hashtags and “@” replies.
You probably use at least one technology for off-label purposes, even if you don’t think of it that way. Here are a few of the more popular unofficial use cases.
LinkedIn (and other social networks) for finding romance. Every social network that gets popular enough is sure to get touted by someone or other as a better dating site than actual dating sites. People who think the best matches are friends of friends prefer Facebook, or apps that ride on top of Facebook, like Hinge and Tinder. Those seeking partners with similar interests prefer Twitter. There’s even a dating site called Dreamcliq that helps you find Instagram and Pinterest members who share your visual taste.
But what if what you really care about in a prospective lover is his or her employment history and professional achievements? Then you are a very boring person. But you have plenty of company, evidently. LinkedUp and Hitch.me both propose to help you find romantic prospects among your work contacts. Max Fischer, who started LinkedUp, says his app just makes it easier to do what people were already doing already.
Couchsurfing for straight-up sex. Officially, Couchsurfing is a website that helps would-be travelers find willing hosts and vice versa. Unofficially, it’s “the greatest hook-up app ever devised,” at least according to Business Insider. But why settle for just having sex when you can have sex and get paid? That’s the idea behind Loveroom, a/k/a “Airbnb for attractive people.” Sadly for attractive people, it’s less a real company than a promotional stunt. Meanwhile, Airbnb — a/k/a “Airbnb for unattractive people” — isn’t nearly as hospitable to hookups, according to this Quora forum, perhaps because of the whole “sex + money = prostitution” thing.
Tinder for business networking. If everybody’s using social networks and sharing-economy platforms to find mates, what are they doing on dating sites? Tinder co-founder Sean Rad has been trying to make the case that a lot of what goes on in his app is business-related — people meeting co-founders, investors, employees, etc. “We’ve never defined Tinder as a dating app,” he told me a few months ago. “Tinder is very much a utility that’s solving a problem we have in getting to know new people and forming new relationships.” It’s still not worth $5 billion, though.
Venmo for social news. According to The Wire, the payments app Venmo is “the best social network nobody’s talking about” because it lets you see not just what your friends are doing and saying but what they’re spending money on. If watching two people you know divvy up all their assets after a breakup is your idea of a good time, by all means, download it now.
YouTube for journaling: Buzzfeed’s Mark Slutsky dove deep within the septic tank that is YouTube’s comment boards and discovered a subculture of intimate personal confessions and reminiscences, prompted by pop music.
Gmail drafts for clandestine messaging. Sharing access to a Gmail account and leaving unsent messages in the “Drafts” folder enables communication without some of the usual digital traces of email. That’s how David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell corresponded during their affair; they reportedly borrowed the trick from terrorist networks, who pioneered it to evade surveillance
Blog comments, also for sneaky messaging. BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow says adolescents whose school servers block social media sites have figured out they can hijack random blogs’ comment sections to use as ad hoc message boards.
World of Warcraft, again with the secret messaging: Terrorists may or may not be communicating with each other inside the virtual environments of massive multiplayer online games, but either way, the NSA is on the case.
Minecraft for urban planning. The world-building game Minecraft turns out to be a pretty good tool for visualizing and designing cities — so good that the United Nations teamed up with the game’s maker on a project to improve public spaces around the world.
Foursquare for crime. Back when check-ins were a bigger part of Foursquare’s pitch to users, there was a brief moment of collective panic over the idea that thieves would use people’s public location updates to figure out when they’d be away from home. A website called PleaseRobMe tried to point out this danger, or satirize it, or possibly to actual help the burglars.
H/Ts to Jonathan Hall, Parmy Olson, Alex Knapp, Kashmir Hill and Ryan Mac.
Disclosure: I use Gmail drafts all the time as a sort of poor-man’s Evernote. It’s terrible email hygiene, I know. Don’t judge.