February 2008

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There are some insightful comments on how moderation architectures affect the emergent character of social platforms in Chris Wilson’s article on Slate:
Digg, Wikipedia, and the myth of Web 2.0 democracy.

He explains how the rules structures of Wikipedia and Digg have resulted (ironically) in highly centralized power structures and territorialism. A quote:

While both sites effectively function as oligarchies, they are still democratic in one important sense. Digg and Wikipedia’s elite users aren’t chosen by a corporate board of directors or by divine right. They’re the people who participate the most. Despite the fairy tales about the participatory culture of Web 2.0, direct democracy isn’t feasible at the scale on which these sites operate. Still, it’s curious to note that these sites seem to have the hierarchical structure of the old-guard institutions they’ve sought to supplant.

He goes on to explain how Slashdot’s moderator-selection rules help to keep this top-heavy effect from happening, by making moderator status a bit easier to acquire, at more levels of involvement, while still keeping enough top-down oversight to keep consistent quality levels high.

So, my article is up… thanks to all the excellent editors who pushed me to finish the dang thing over the last seven months. Procrastination is a fine art, my friends.

Personas and the Role of Design Documentation – Boxes and Arrows

Here’s a nugget:

A persona document can be very useful for design—and for some teams even essential. But it’s only an explicit, surface record of a shared understanding based on primary experience. It’s not the persona itself, and doesn’t come close to taking the place of the original experience that spawned it.

Without that understanding, the deliverables are just documents, empty husks. Taken alone, they may fulfill a deadline, but they don’t feed the imagination.

Edited to Add:

Already I’m getting some great feedback, and I’m realizing that I may not have made things quite clear enough in the article.

The article is meant as a corrective statement, to a degree. I focus so strongly on what I see as the *first* priority of methods and documentation in design work—shared artifacts for the design process, because I think this has gotten lost in the conventional wisdom of “documents for stakeholders.” So, I amped up my point in the other direction, trying to drag the pendulum more toward the center.

I was careful to point out that stakeholder communication is also, of course, a very important goal. But it is a SEPARATE goal. It may even require creating separate deliverables to achieve!

We too often get caught up in using documentation as a tool for convincing other people, rather than tools for collaborative design among the practitioners. I may have overstated my case, though, and, alas, obscured these caveats I scattered throughout.

In short: I wanted to emphasize that personas are first and foremost the act of empathetic imagination for design; and I wanted to emphasize that all design documentation is first and foremost an artifact/tool for collaborative reflection, shared understanding and iteration. As long as we remember these things, we can then go on to make all the persona descriptions and slick stakeholder deliverables we want and need to get the rest of the job done.

Maybe I should’ve used that “in short” statement in the article? But, I guess if I’d kept revising, it’d have taken me another six months!

Please do keep the feedback coming, though. Mostly, I’m wanting to spark conversations like these!

Note: This is something I had embedded in a few very long presentations from last year, and I’m realizing it would probably be useful (to me if nobody else) to elaborate on it as its own topic. Here’s the first part.

social equation

There’s a lot of writing and thinking happening around the best approaches to designing platforms for social activity. I certainly haven’t read it all, and it keeps being added to every day. But from what I have read, and from the experiences I’ve had with social design factors, I distilled the basics down to a simple equation. “Cultivation equals Motivation divided by Moderation.” It sounds like a no-brainer, to those of us who’ve been thinking about this stuff for a while. For me, though, it helps keep focus on the three most important elements to consider with any social design undertaking.


Cultivation requires that we recalibrate the approaches we’ve inherited from traditional top-down ideas of social management & design. In other words, it’s cultivation rather than dictation. To ‘cultivate’ something implies that there is an existing culture — some organic, emergent, collective entity — that exists regardless of our intrusion, with its own natural rhythms and patterns.

Communities Happen

How do we help a community maintain its health, value and effectiveness for the individuals involved in it? We certainly don’t start re-defining it and prescribing (or pre-scripting) every process and action. Rather than dictating the content of the culture’s behavior, we create and manage the right conditions for the community to improve itself on its own terms. This is much more like gardening than managing in the traditional sense.

You can’t create a community by fiat. You can’t legislate or force participation — then all you get is a process, not social interaction. Social interaction may take place under the surface, but that’s in spite of your central planning, not because of it. Communities happen in an emergent way, on their own.

Mistaking the Ant-Hill for the Colony

It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that the software for an online community actually is, in some way, the community itself — that the intentionally designed technology “network” is the social network. But these technological tools are a medium for the thing, not the thing itself. It’s like mistaking the ant hill for the ant colony. We often point at ant hills and say “there’s an ant colony” but the social behaviors of the ants exist whether they happen in that pile of earth or another.

Social software platforms tap into conversations that already exist in some form or another. At best they can enable and amplify those conversations and help them broaden outside of their original confines, even redefine themselves in some way. Of course, many of the connections people make on these platforms may never have happened without the software, but there had to be the propensity for those connections to happen to begin with.

Designing for social activity, then, is about creating infrastructure that helps communities and social patterns behave according to their own natures. Even the social character of the network isn’t created by the software. Rather, the platform’s architecture encourages only certain kinds of extant networking behaviors to thrive.

Take, for instance, LinkedIn vs MySpace. LinkedIn didn’t create the behavior of calm, professional networking interactions, introductions and linking between peers. That kind of behavior was going on long before LinkedIn launched. But its architecture is such that it allows and encourages only that kind of social interaction to take root. MySpace, on the other hand, is much more open architecturally; linking is much more informal, and self-expression is almost completely unfettered. The nature of the MySpace platform, however, essentially guarantees that few will want to use it for the sober, corporate-style networking that happens on LinkedIn. (Lots of professional work goes on in MySpace, of course, but mainly in the creative & performing arts space, where self-expression and unique identity cues are de facto requirements.)

So the character of the platform’s architecture — its rules and structures — determine the character of social behavior that your platform is most likely to attract and support. But once you’ve done that, then how do you cultivate it?


One important factor is something you can’t create artificially: the cultivators have to be invested in the community they’re cultivating. This cannot be faked. There are too many levels of tacit understanding — gut-level feel — necessary for understanding the nuances of a particular culture involved to do otherwise. You have to be willing to get your hands dirty, just like in a garden. Communities are fine with having decisions and rule-creation happening from some top-down component (which we’ll talk about in a minute) but only if they perceive the authority as having an authentic identity within the community, and that any design changes or “improvements” to the platform are coming from shared values.

Example: one reason for Facebook’s public-relations troubles of late is that a number of the design decisions its creator has made have come across as being less about cultivating the community than lining the pockets of investors. Privacy advocates and regular users revolted, and forced Facebook to adjust their course.

Another example: MySpace managed to give new users the impression that the people running the site were just “one of them” by creating the ubiquitous persona of “Tom.” Tom is a real person, one of the co-founders of the platform, who has a profile, and who “welcomes” you to the network when you join. He’s the voice for announcements and such that come from those who created and maintain MySpace. Tom is real, to a point — recently, it was discovered that Tom’s age and information have been tweaked to make him seem more in line with the service’s target demographic. It’s arguable that by the time this disillusioning revelation occurred, MySpace had grown to enough critical mass that it didn’t matter. I suspect, though, that the Tom avatar still serves its purpose for millions of users who either don’t know about the news, or think of him more as the Ronald McDonald of the brand — a friendly face that gives the brand some personality, even if they don’t care if it’s a real person.

If you’re cultivating from an authentic stance, and you understand that your role isn’t dictator, then it’s a matter of executing cultivation by striking the right balance between Motivation and Moderation.

Next up … Motivation & Moderation. Stay tuned.

I have no idea why, over the last few versions, WordPress hasn’t been able to notify me of comments, etc, but I’m very glad I found this post:
How to fix WordPress when it doesn’t notify you of comments | MeAndMyDrum

Evidently just commenting out a line in a root file of WordPress will do the trick.

There’s been a lot of talk over the last couple of years about a collective Eureka moment where we’ve all come to realize that the Internet, the Web, and designing User Experiences for those platforms, is “really about People … not products and information.”

I think it’s great that more folks are coming to this realization.

But in the same breath, some of these folks will then say that Information Architecture is hopelessly out of touch with this reality … that IA is ‘dead’ or that there’s no such thing as an information architecture, since it’s all user-driven nowadays. I’m not going to point to specific instances, because I’m not posting this to start more flame wars … just to finally state something I wish I’d blogged over a year ago.

What these (I’m sure well-meaning) people don’t seem to grasp is that the IA community has been focused on social infrastructures for a very long time. Some of the most successful writing and design has come from members of this practitioner community — witness Epinions, Slideshare, and PublicSquare just to name a few platforms. Members of this community have published books and blogs at the forefront of social design thinking.

In fact, in the much-maligned “Manifesto” the IAI posted back in 2002, there was this language:

* One goal of information architecture is to shape information into an environment that allows users to create, manage and share its very substance in a framework that provides semantic relevance.
* Another goal of information architecture is to shape the environment to enable users to better communicate, collaborate and experience one another.
* The latter goal is more fundamental than the former: information exists only in communities of meaning. Without other people, information no longer has context, and no longer informs.

I’ll take the blame for some of the corny language in that document — but hey, it was a manifesto for crying out loud … a bit of purple prose is par for the course.

The point is, this has always been part of our community’s focus. If people don’t realize that, they’ve not been paying attention.

There. It feels good to get things off one’s chest, no? :-) Ok… carry on.

Kevin Kelly’s article Bottom Up is Not Enough is making the rounds, and rightly so. Here’s a snippet:

Here’s how I sum it up: The bottom-up hive mind will always take us much further than even seems possible. It keeps surprising us in this regard. Given enough time, dumb things can be smarter than we think.

At that same time, the bottom-up hive mind will never take us to our end goal. We are too impatient. So we add design and top down control to get where we want to go.

He does speak to “how” we do that, but the word for me is “recalibrate” — we need to recalibrate the apparatuses we use for managing & governing collective behavior. It’s all about cultivation, not dictation.

A Few Poems

People keep asking me “what did you do with all that literature education & poem stuff” … well, I wrote a bunch of poems. I still write them now and then, but haven’t been terribly focused on it for a good while. I used to have some of the ones I’ve published up on the blog, and in the move from one blog host to the next, they ended up lost in the shuffle. Here are a few of them, again, for posterity’s sake.

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More on Obama

Lawrence Lessig recently posted this calm, engaging presentation on his site: 20 minutes or so on why I am 4Barack (Lessig Blog).

I’d like to add a note or two…
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I’ll be the first to admit that I can fall for hype. Not more than most people, I’d say, but I know I can do it.

But when it comes to politics, it’s very hard to believe any hype at all. I’m terribly jaded about it.

I’m voting for Obama in spite of the hype.

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