I joined Path on December 1st, 2011. I know this because it says so, under my “path” in the application on my iPhone.
That same day, I posted this message in the app:

“Wondering how Path knew whom to recommend as friends?!?”

I’ve used a lot of social software over the years (technically since 1992 when the Internet was mainly a social platform, before the e-commerce era), and I do this Internet stuff for a living, so I have a pretty solid mental model for where my data is and what is accessing it. But this was one of those moments where I realized something very non-transparent was happening.

How did it know? 

Path was very smartly recommending users on Path to me, even though it knew nothing about me other than my email address and the fact that it was on my phone. I hadn’t given it a Twitter handle; I hadn’t given it the same email address I use on Facebook (which isn’t public anyway). So how did it know?
I recall in a dinner conversation with co-workers deciding that it must just be checking my address book on my phone. That bugged me, but I let it slide.
Now, I’m intrigued with why I let it go so easily. I suspect a few reasons:

  • Path had positioned itself as an app for intimate connections with close friends. It set the expectation that it was going to be careful and safe, more closed than most social platforms.
  • It was a very pleasing experience to use the app; I didn’t want to just stop using it, but wanted to keep trying it out.
  • I was busy and in the middle of a million other things, so I didn’t take the time to think much about it beyond that initial note of dismay.
  • I assumed it was only checking names of contacts and running some kind of smart matching algorithm — no idea why I thought this, but I suppose the character of the app caused me to assume it was using a very light touch.

Whatever the reasons, Path set me up to assume a lot about what the app was and what it was going to do. After a few weeks of using it sporadically, I started noticing other strange things, though.

  • It announces, on its own, when I have entered a new geographical area. I had been assuming it was only showing me this information, but then I looked for a preference to set it as public or private and found none. But since I had no way of looking at my own path from someone else’s point of view, I had to ask a colleague: can you see that I just arrived in Atlanta? He said yes, and we talked about how odd that was… no matter how close your circle of friends, you don’t necessarily want them all knowing where you are without saying so.
  • When someone “visited my path” it would tell me so. But it wasn’t entirely clear what that meant. “So and so visited your path” sounds like they walked up to the front of my house and spent a while meditating on my front porch, but in reality they may have just accidentally tapped something they thought would allow them to make a comment but ended up in my “path” instead. And the only way to dismiss this announcement was to tap it, which took me to that person’s path. Were they now going to get a message saying I had visited their path? I didn’t know … but I wondered if it would misconstrue to the other users what I’d done.
  • Path also relies on user pictures to convey “who” … if someone just posts a picture, it doesn’t say the name of the person, just their user picture. If the picture isn’t of the person (or is blank) I have no idea who posted it.

All of these issues, and others, add up to what I’ve been calling Context Management — the capabilities that software should be giving us to manage the multifaceted contexts it exposes us to, and that it allows us to create. Some platforms have been getting marginally better at this (Facebook with its groups, Google + with its circles) but we’re a long way from solving these problems in our software. Since these issues are so common, I mostly gave Path a pass — I was curious to see how it would evolve, and if they’d come up with interesting solutions for context management.

It Gets Worse

And now this news … that Path is actually uploading your entire address book to Path’s servers in order to run matching software and present possible friends.

Once I thought about it for half a minute, I realized, well yeah of course they are. There’s no way the app itself has all the code and data needed to run sophisticated matching against Path’s entire database. They’d have to upload that information, the same way Evernote needs you to upload a picture of a document in order to run optical character recognition. But Evernote actually tells me it’s doing this … that there’s a cloud of my notes, and that I have to sync that picture in order for Evernote to figure out the text. But Path mentioned nothing of the sort. (I haven’t read their license agreement that I probably “signed” at some point, because nobody ever reads that stuff — I’d get nothing else done in life if I actually read the terms & conditions of every piece of software I used; it’s a broken concept; software needs to explain itself in the course of use.)

When you read the discussion going on under the post I linked to, you see the Path CEO joining in to explain what they did. He seems like a nice chap, really. He seems to actually care about his users. But he evidently has a massive blind spot on this problem.

The Blind Spot

Here’s the deal: if you’re building an app like Path and look at user adoption as mainly an engineering problem, you’re going to come to a similar conclusion that Path did. To get people to use Path they have to be connected to friends and family, and in order to prime that pump, you have to go ahead and grab contact information from their existing social data. And if you’re going to do that effectively, you’re going to have to upload it to a system that can crunch it all so it surfaces relevant recommendations, making it frictionless for users to start seeding their network within the Path context.

But what Path skipped was the step that most such platforms take: asking your permission to look at and use that information. They essentially made the same mistake Google Buzz and Facebook Beacon did — treating your multilayered, complex social sphere as a database where everyone is suddenly in one bucket of “friends” and assuming that grabbing that information is more important than helping you understand the rules and structures you’ve suddenly agreed to live within.

Using The Right Lenses

For Path, asking your permission to look at your contacts (or your Twitter feed, or whatever else) would add friction to adoption, which isn’t good for growing their user base. So, like Facebook has done so many times, they err on the side of what is best for their growth rather than what is best for users’ peace of mind and control of their contextual reality. It’s not an evil, calculated position. There’s no cackling villain planning how to expose people’s private information.

It’s actually worse than that: it’s well-meaning people looking only through a couple of lenses and simply not seeing the problem, which can be far more dangerous. In this case, the lenses are:

  • Aesthetics (make it beautiful so people want to touch it and look at it),
  • Small-bore interaction design (i.e. delightful & responsive interaction controls),
  • Engineering (very literally meeting a list of decontextualized requirements with functional system capabilities), and
  • Marketing (making the product as viral as possible, for growth and market valuation purposes).

What’s missing?

  • Full-fledged interaction design (considering the entire interaction framework within which the small, delightful interactions take place — creating a coherent language of interaction that actually makes sense rather than merely window-dresses with novelty)
  • Content strategy (in part affecting the narrative around the service that clearly communicates what the user’s expectations should be: is it intimate and “safe” or just another social platform?)
  • Information architecture (a coherent model for the information environment’s structure and structural rules: where the user is, where their information lives, what is being connected, and how user action is affecting contexts beyond the one the user thinks they’re in — a structural understanding largely communicated by content & interaction design, by the way)

I’m sure there’s more. But what you see above is not an anomaly. This is precisely the diagnosis I would give nearly every piece of software I’m seeing launched. Path is just an especially egregious example, in part because its beauty and other qualities stand in such stark contrast to its failings.

Path Fail is UX Fail

This is in part what some of us in the community are calling the failure of “user experience design” culturally: UX has largely become a buzzword for the first list, in the rush to crank out hip, interactively interesting software. But “business rules” which effectively act as the architecture of the platform are driven almost entirely by business concerns; content is mostly overlooked for any functional purposes beyond giving a fun, hip tone to the brand of the platform; and interaction design is mainly being driven by designers more concerned with “taste” performance and “innovative” UI than creating a rigorously considered, coherent experience.

If a game developer released something like this, they’d be crushed. The incoherence alone would make players throw up their hands in frustration and move on to a competitor in a heartbeat; Metacritic would destroy its ability to make sales. How is it, then, that we have such low standards and give such leeway to the applications being released for everything else?

So, there’s my rant. Will I keep using Path? Well … damn… they already have most of my most personal information, so it’s not like leaving them is going to change that. I’m going to ride it out, see if they learn from mistakes, and maybe show the rest of the hip-startup software world what it’s like to fail and truly do better. They have an opportunity here to learn and come back as a real champion of the things I mentioned above. Let’s hope for the best.

As I hinted in a post a couple of weeks ago, I’m writing a book. The topic: Designing Context.
If the phrase sounds a little awkward, that’s on purpose. It’s not something we’re used to talking about yet. But I believe “context” to be a medium of sorts, that we’ve been shaping for years without coming to grips with the full implications of our work.
Although I have written many things, some of them pretty long, I have never written anything this long before. I’m a little freaked out.
But I have to keep reminding myself that the job of this book isn’t to definitively and comprehensively cover everything having to do with its subject. I just want to do a good job getting some fascinating, helpful ideas about this topic into the hands of the community in a nice, readable format that gives me the room to tell the story well.
This isn’t a how-to book, more of a “let’s look at things this way and see what happens” book. It’s also not an academic book–I’m not an academic and still have a 50+ hour a week job, so there’s no way I’ll ever have time to read & reference every related/relevant work on the topic, even though that seems to be what I’m trying to do in spite of myself.
And I’m going to be very honest about the fact that it’s largely a book on information architecture: how information shapes & creates context for humans.
Thanks to O’Reilly Media for working with me on getting this thing going, and to Peter Morville for the prodding & encouragement.
Now … time to write.

PS for a better idea of what I’m getting at, here are some previous writings:

My talk for Interaction 12 in Dublin, Ireland.

Another 10-minute, abbreviated talk.

I’ve been presenting on this topic for quite a while. It’s officially an obsession. And I’m happy to say there’s actually a lot of attention being paid to context lately, and that is a good thing. But it’s mainly from the perspective of designing for existing contexts in the world, and accommodating or responding appropriately to them.

For example, the ubicomp community has been researching this issue for many years — if computing is no longer tied to a few discrete devices and is essentially happening everywhere, in all sorts of parts of our environment, how can we make sure it responds in relevant, even considerate ways to its users?

Likewise, the mobile community has been abuzz about the context of particular devices, and how to design code and UI that shapes the experience based on the device’s form factor, and how to balance the strengths of native apps vs web apps.

And the Content Strategy practitioner community has been adroitly handling the challenges of writing for the existing audience, situational & media contexts that content may be published or syndicated into.

All of these are worthy subjects for our attention, and very complex challenges for us to figure out. I’m on board with any and all of these efforts.

But I genuinely think there’s a related, but different issue that is still a blind spot: we don’t only have to worry about designing for existing contexts, we also have to understand that we are often designing context itself.

In essence, we’ve created a new dimension, an information dimension that we walk around in simultaneously with the one where we evolved as a species; and this dimension can significantly change the meaning of our actions and interactions, with the change of a software rule, a link name or a label. There are no longer clear boundaries between “here” and “there” and reality is increasingly getting bent into disorienting shapes by this pervasive layer of language & soft-machinery.

My thinking on this central point has evolved over the last four to five years, since I first started presenting on the topic publicly. I’ve since been including a discussion of context design in almost every talk or article I’ve written.

I’m posting below my 10-minute “punchy idea” version developed for the WebVisions conference (iterations of this were given in Portland, Atlanta & New York City).

I’m also working on a book manuscript on the topic, but more on that later as it takes more shape (and as the publisher details are ironed out).

I’m really looking forward to delving into the topic with the attention and breadth it needs for the book project (with trepidation & anxiety, but mostly the positive kind ;-).

Of course, any and all suggestions, thoughts, conversations or critiques are welcome.

PS: as I was finishing up this post, John Seely Brown (whom I consider a patron saint) tweeted this bit: “context is something we constantly underplay… with today’s tools we can now create context almost as easily as content.” Synchronicity? More likely just a result of his writing soaking into my subconscious over the last 12-13 years. But quite validating to read, regardless :-)

I’m pasting the SlideShare-extracted notes below for reference.
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French Toast

I’m using this post to give a home to a video clip from the show M*A*S*H. I sometimes use the clip in presentations, but it doesn’t seem to be compatible with YouTube, so I’m putting it here instead. QuickTime m4v format; just click the link to view:  French Toast

So, the short version of my point in this post (the “tl;dr” as it were) is this: possibly the most significant value of Second Life is as a pioneering platform for navigating & comprehending the pervasive information dimension in a ubiquitous/pervasively networked physical environment.

That’s already a mouthful … But here’s the longer version, if you’re so inclined … Second Life Hand Logo

It’s easy to dismiss Second Life as kitsch now. Even though it’s still up and running, and evidently still providing a fulfilling experience for its dedicated user-base, it no longer has the sparkle of the Next Big Thing that the hype of several years ago brought to it.

I’ll admit, I was quite taken by it when I first heard of it, and I included significant commentary about it in presentations and writings I did at the time. But after only a few months, I started realizing it had serious limitations as a mainstream medium. For one thing, the learning curve for satisfying creation was too steep.

Three-dimensional modeling is hard enough with even the best tools, but Second Life’s composition toolset at the height of its popularity was frustratingly clumsy. Even if it had been state-of-the-art, however, it takes special knowledge & ability to draw in three dimensions. Unlike text-based MUDs, where anyone with half decent grasp of language could create relatively convincing characters, objects, rooms, Second Life required everything to be made explicitly, literally. Prose allows room for gestalt — the reader can fill in the details with imagination. Not in an environment like Second Life, though.

Plus, to make anything interactive, you had to learn a fairly complex scripting language. Not a big deal for practiced coders, but for regular people it was daunting.

So, as Second Life attracted more users, it became more of a hideous tragedy-of-the-commons experience, with acres of random, gaudy crap lying about, and one strange shopping mall after another with people trying to make money on the platform selling clothing, dance moves, cars and houses — things that imaginative players would likely have preferred to make for themselves, but instead had to piece together through an expensive exercise in collage.

At the heart of what made so many end up dismissing the platform, though, was its claim to being the next Web … the new way everyone was supposed to interact digitally online.

I never understood why anyone was making that claim, because it always seemed untenable to me. Second Life was inspired by Neal Stephenson’s virtual reality landscape in Snow Crash (and somewhat more distantly, Gibson’s vision of “cyberspace”), and managed an adroit facsimile of how Stephenson’s fictional world sounded. But Stephenson’s vision was essentially metaphorical.

Still, beyond the metaphor issue, the essential qualities of the Web that made it so ubiquitous were absent from Second Life: the Web is decentralized, not just user-created but non-privatized and widely distributed. It exists on millions of servers run by millions of people, companies, universities and the like. The Web is also made of a technology that’s much simpler for creators to use, and perhaps most importantly, the Web is very open and easily integrated into everything else. Second Life never got very far with being integrated in that way, though it tried. The main problem was that the very experience itself was not easily transferable to other media, devices etc. Even though they tried using a URL-like linking method that could be shared anywhere as text, the *content* of Second Life was essentially “virtual reality” 3D visual experience, something that just doesn’t transfer well to other platforms, as opposed to the text, static images & videos we share so easily across the Web & so many applications & devices.

Well, now that I’ve said all that somewhat negative stuff about the platform, what do I mean by “what we learned”?

It seems to me Second Life is an example of how we sometimes rehearse the

Recent version of the SL "Viewer" UI (danielvoyager.wordpress.com)

Recent version of the SL "Viewer" UI (danielvoyager.wordpress.com)

future before it happens. In SL, you inhabit a world that’s essentially made of information. Even the physical objects are, in essence, information — code that only pretends to be corporeal, but that can transform itself, disappear, reappear, whatever — a reality that can be changed as quickly as editing a sentence in a word processor.

While it’s true that our physical world can’t literally be changed that way, the truth is that the information layer that pervades it is becoming more substantial, more meaningful, and more influential in our experience of the world around us.

If “reality” is taken to be the sum total of all the informational and sensory experience we have of our environs, and we acknowledge that the informational (and to some degree sensory, as far as sight and sound go) layer is becoming dominated by digitally mediated, networked experience, then we are living in a place that is not too far off from what Second Life presents us.

Back when I was on some panels about Second Life, I would explain that the most significant aspect of the platform for user experience wasn’t the 3D space we were interacting with, but the “Viewer” — the mediating interface we used for navigating and manipulating that space. Linden Labs continually revised and matured the extensive menu-driven interface and search features to help inhabitants navigate that world, find other players & interest groups, or to create layers of permissions rules for all the various properties and objects. It was flawed, frustrating, volatile — but it was tackling some really fascinating, complex problems around how to live in a fluid, information-saturated world where wayfinding had more to do with the information layer *about* the actual places than the “physical” places themselves.

If we admit that the meaning & significance of our  physical world is becoming largely driven by networked, digital information, we can’t ignore the fact that Second Life was pioneering the tools we increasingly need for navigating, searching, filtering & finding our way through our “real life” environments.

What a city “means” to us is tied up as much in the information dimension that pervades it — the labels & opinions, statistics & rankings — the stuff that represents it on the grid, as it is the physical atoms we touch as we walk its sidewalks or drive through its streets, or as we sit in its restaurants and theaters. All those experiences are shaped powerfully by reviews and tips of Yelp, or the record of a friend having been in a particular spot as recorded in Foursquare, or a picture we see on Flickr taken at a particular latitude and longitude. Or the real-time information about where our friends are *right now* and which places are kinda dead tonight. Not to mention the market-generated information about price, quantity & availability.

It’s always been the case that the narrative of a place has as much to do with how we experience the reality of the place as the physical sensations we have of it in person. But now that narrative has been made explicit, as a matter of record, and cumulative as well — from the interactions of everyone who has gone before us there and left some shadow of their presence, thoughts, reactions.

One day it would be interesting to compare all the ways in which various bits of software are helping us navigate this information dimension to the tools invented for inhabiting and comprehending the pure-information simulacra of Second Life. I bet we’d find a lot of similarities.

 

Unhappiness Machine

I posted the content below over on the Macquarium Blog, but I’m repeating here for posterity, and to first add a couple other thoughts:

1. It’s amazing how easily corporations can fool themselves into feeling good about the experiences they create for their users by making elaborate dreamscapes & public theater — as if the fictions they’re creating somehow make up for the reality of what they deliver (and the hard work it takes to make reality square in any way with that imagined experience). This reminds me a bit of the excellent, well-executed dismemberment of this sort of thinking that Bret Victor posted this past week on the silliness & laziness behind things like the Microsoft “everything is a finger-tap slab” future-porn. Go read it.

2. Viral videos like the CocaCola Happiness Machine don’t only fool the originating brand into feeling overconfident — they make the audience seeing the videos mistake the bit of feel-good emotion they receive as substantial experience, and then wonder “how can my own company give such delight?” I’ve seen so many hours burned with brainstorming sessions where people are trying to come up with the answer to that — and they end up with more reality-numbing theatrics rather than fixing difficult problems with their actual product or service delivery.

Post after the cut — but it looks nicer on the MQ Blog ;-)
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In Defense of D

DTDT means lots of things

A long time ago, in certain communities of practice in the “user experience” family of practices, an acronym was coined: “DTDT” aka “Defining the Damned Thing”.

For good or ill, it’s been used for years now like a flag on the play in a football game. A discussion gets underway, whether heated or not, and suddenly someone says “hey can we stop defining the damned thing? I have work to do here, and you’re cluttering my [inbox / Twitter feed / ear drums / whatever ...]”

Sometimes it rightly has reset a conversation that has gone well off the rails, and that’s fine. But more often, I’ve seen it used to shut down conversations that are actually very healthy, thriving and … necessary.

Why necessary? Because conversation *about* the practice is a healthy, necessary part of being a practitioner, and being in a community of other practitioners. It’s part of maturing a practice into a discipline, and getting beyond merely doing work, and on to being self-aware about how and why you do it.

It used to be that people weren’t supposed to talk about sex either. That tended to result in lots of unhappy, closeted people in unfulfilling relationships and unfulfilled desires. Eventually we learned that talking about sex made sex better. Any healthy 21st century couple needs to have these conversations — what’s sex for? how do you see sex and how is that different from how I see it? Stuff like that. Why do people tend to avoid it? Because it makes them uncomfortable … but discomfort is no reason to shun a healthy conversation.

The same goes for design or any other practice; more often than not, what people in these conversations are trying to do is develop a shared understanding of their practice, developing their professional identities, and challenging each other to see different points of view — some of which may seem mutually exclusive, but turn out to be mutually beneficial, or even interdependent.

I’ll grant that these discussions often have more noise than signal, but that’s the price you pay to get the signal. I’ll also grant that actually “defining” a practice is largely a red herring — a thriving practice continues to evolve and discover new things about itself. Even if a conversation starts out about clean, clinical definition, it doesn’t take long before lots of other more useful (but muddier, messier) stuff is getting sorted out.

It’s ironic to me that so many people in the “UX family” of practitioner communities utterly lionize “Great Figures” of design who are largely known for what they *wrote* and *said* about design as much as for the things they made, and then turn to their peers and demand they stop talking about what their practice means, and just post more pat advice, templates or tutorials.

A while back I was doing a presentation on what neuroscience is teaching us about being designers — how our heads work when we’re making design decisions, trying to be creative, and the rest. And one of the things I learned was the importance of metacognition — the ability to think about thinking. I know people who refuse to do such a thing — they just want to jump in and ACT. But more often than not, they don’t grow, they don’t learn. They just keep doing what they’re used to, usually to the detriment of themselves and the people around them. Do you want to be one of those people? Probably not.

So, enough already. It’s time we defend the D. Next time you hear someone pipe up and say “hey [eyeroll] can we stop the DTDT already?” kindly remind them that mature communities of practice discuss, dream, debate, deliberate, deconstruct and the rest … because ultimately it helps us get better, deeper and stronger at the Doing.

From the point of view of a binary mindset, identity is a pretty simple thing. You, an object = [unique identifier]. You as an object represented in a database should be known by that identifier and none other, or else the data is a mess.

The problem is, people are a mess. A glorious mess. And identity is not a binary thing. It’s much more fluid, variegated and organic than we are comfortable admitting to ourselves.

Lately there’s been some controversy over policies at Facebook and the newly ascendant Google + that demand people use their “real” names. Both companies have gone so far as to actually pull the plug on people who they suspect of not following those guidelines.

But this is actually a pretty wrong-headed thing to do. Not only does the marketplace of ideas have a long, grand tradition of the use of pseudonyms (see my post here from a couple years ago), but people have complex, multifaceted lives that often require they not put their “public identification attribute” (i.e. their ‘real name’) out there on every expression of themselves online.

There are a lot of stories emerging, such as this one about gender-diverse people who feel at risk having to expose their real names, that are showing us the canaries in the proverbial coal mine — the ones first affected by these policies — dropping off in droves.

But millions of others will feel the same pressures in more subtle ways too. Danah Boyd has done excellent work on this subject, and her recent post explains the problem as well as anyone, calling the policies essentially an “abuse of power.”

I’m sure it comes across as abusive, but I do think it’s mostly unwitting. I think it’s a symptom of an engineering mindset (object has name, and that name should be used for object) and a naive belief in transparency as an unalloyed “good.” But on an internet where your name can be searched and found in *any* context in which you have ever expressed yourself, what about those conversations you want to be able to have without everyone knowing? What about the parts of yourself you want to be able to explore and discover using other facets of your personality? (Sherry Turkle’s early work is great on this subject.)

I can’t help but think a Humanities & Social Sciences influence is so very lacking among the code-focused, engineering-cultured wizards behind these massive information environments. There’s a great article by Paul Adams, formerly of Google (and Google +), discussing the social psychology angle and how it influenced “Circles,” how FaceBook got it somewhat wrong with “Groups,” and why he ended up at Facebook anyway. But voices like his seem to be in the minority among those who are actually making this stuff.

Seeing people as complex coalescences of stories, histories, desires, relationships and behaviors means giving up on a nice, clean entity-relationship-diagram-friendly way of seeing the world. It means having to work harder on the soft, fuzzy complicated stuff between people than the buckets you want people to put themselves in. We’re a long way from a healthy, shared understanding of how to make these environments human enough.

UPDATE:
I realize now that I neglected to mention the prevailing theory of why platforms are requiring real names: marketing purposes. That could very well be. But that, too, is just another cultural force in play. And I think there’s a valid topic to be addressed regarding the binary-minded approach to handling things like personal identity.

There’s an excellent post on the subject at The Atlantic. It highlights a site called My Name is Me, which describes itself as “Supporting your freedom to choose the name you use on social networks and other online services.”

There are two things in particular that everyone struggles with on Twitter. Here are my humble suggestions as to how Twitter can do something about it.

1. The Asymmetrical Direct-Message Conundrum

What it is: User A is following user B, but User B is not following User A. User B direct-messages User A, and when User A tries to reply to that direct message, they cannot, because User B is not following them.

Fix: Give User B a way to set a message that will DM User A with some contact info automatically. Something like “Unfortunately I can’t receive direct messages from you, but please contact me at blahblah@domain.blah.” A more complicated fix that might help would be to allow User B to set an optional exception for receiving direct messages for anyone User B has direct-messaged (but whom User B is not following), for a given amount of time or a number of messages. It’s not perfect, but it will handle the majority of these occurrences.

2. The “DM FAIL”

What it is: User A means to send a direct message to User B, but accidentally tweets it to the whole wide world.

There are a couple of variations:
a) The SMS Reflex Response: User A gets a text from Twitter with a direct message from User B; User A types a reply and hits “send” before realizing it’s from Twitter and should’ve had “d username” (or now “m username” ?!?) typed before it.

b) The Prefix Fumble: User A is in same situation as above, but does realize it’s a text from Twitter — however, since they’re so used to thinking of Twitter usernames in the form of “@username” they type that out, forgetting they should be using the other prefix instead.

Fix: allow me to turn *off* the ability to create a tweet via SMS; and reply to my SMS text with a “hey you can’t do that” reminder if I forget I have it turned off and try doing it anyway. Let me turn it on and off via SMS text with commands, so if I’m stuck on a phone where I need to tweet that way, I can still do it. But so many people have smart-phones with Twitter apps, there’s no reason why I can’t receive SMS from Twitter without being able to create via SMS as well.

There you go, Twitter! My gift to you :-)

(By the by, I have no illusions that I’m the only one thinking about how to solve for these problems, and the bright designers at Twitter probably already have better solutions. But … you know, I thought I’d share, just in case … )

To celebrate the recent publication of Resmini & Rosati’s “Pervasive Information Architecture,” I’m reprinting, here, my contribution to the book. Thank you, Andrea & Luca, for asking me to add my own small part to the work!

It’s strange how, over time, some things that were once rare and wondrous can become commonplace and practically unnoticed, even though they have as much or more power as they ever had. Consider things like these: fire; the lever; the wheel; antibiotics; irrigation; agriculture; the semiconductor; the book. Ironically, it’s their inestimable value that causes these inventions to be absorbed into culture so thoroughly that they become part of the fabric of societies adopting them, where their power is taken for granted.

Add to that list two more items, one very old and one very new: the map and the hyperlink.

Those of us who are surrounded by inexpensive maps tend to think of them as banal, everyday objects – a commoditized utility. And the popular conception of mapmaking is that of an antiquated, tedious craft, like book binding or working a letter-press – something one would only do as a hobby, since after all, the whole globe has been mapped by satellites at this point; and we can generate all manner of maps for free from the Internet.

But the ubiquity of maps also shows us how powerful they remain. And the ease with which we can take them for granted belies the depth of skill, talent and dedicated focus it takes for maps (and even mapping software and devices) to be designed and maintained. It’s easy to scoff at cartography as a has-been discipline – until you’re trying to get somewhere, or understand a new place, and the map is poorly made.

Consider as well the hyperlink. A much younger invention than the map, the hyperlink was invented in the mid-1960s. For years it was a rare creature living only in technology labs, until around 1987 when it was moderately popularized in Apple’s HyperCard application. Even then, it was something used mainly by hobbyists and educators and a few interactive-fiction authors; a niche technology. But when Tim Berners-Lee placed that tiny creature in the world-wide substrate of the Internet, it bloomed into the most powerful cultural engine in human history. 

And yet, within only a handful of years, people began taking the hyperlink for granted, as if it had always been around. Even now, among the digital classes, mention of “the web” is often met with a sniff of derision. “Oh that old thing — that’s so 1999.” And, “the web is obsolete – what matters now are mobile devices, augmented reality, apps and touch interfaces.” 

One has to ask, however, what good would any of the apps, mobile devices and augmented reality be without digital links? 

Where these well-meaning people go wrong is to assume the hyperlink is just a homely little clickable bit of text in a browser. The browser is an effective medium for hyperlinked experience, but it’s only one of many. The hyperlink is more than just a clicked bit of text in a browser window — it’s a core element for the digital dimension; it’s the mechanism that empowers regular people to point across time and space and suddenly be in a new place, and to create links that point the way for others as well. 

Once people have this ability, they absorb it into their lives. They assume it will be available to them like roads, or language, or air. They become so used to having it, they forget they’re using it — even when dazzled by their shiny new mobile devices, augmented reality software and touch-screen interfaces. They forget that the central, driving force that makes those technologies most meaningful is how they enable connections — to stories, knowledge, family, friends. And those connections are all, essentially, hyperlinks: pointers to other places in cyberspace. Links between conversations and those conversing — links anybody can create for anybody to use. 

This ability is now so ubiquitous, it’s virtually invisible. The interface is visible, the device is tangible, but the links and the teeming, semantic latticeworks they create are just short of corporeal. Like gravity, we can see its physical effects, but not the force itself.  And yet these systems of links — these architectures of information — are now central to daily life. Communities rely on them to constructively channel member activity. Businesses trust systems of links to connect their customers with products and their business partners with processes. People depend on them for the most mundane tasks — like checking the weather — to the most important, such as learning about a life-changing diagnosis. 

In fact, the hyperlink and the map have a lot in common. They both describe territories and point the way through them. They both present information that enables exploration and discovery. But there is a crucial difference: maps describe a separate reality, while hyperlinks create the very territory they describe. 

Each link is a new path — and a collection of paths is a new geography. The meaningful connections we create between ourselves and the things in our lives were once merely spoken words, static text or thoughts sloshing around in our heads. Now they’re structural — instantiated as part of a digital infrastructure that’s increasingly interwoven with our physical lives. When you add an old friend on a social network, you create a link unlike any link you would have made by merely sending a letter or calling them on the phone. It’s a new path from the place that represents your friend to the place that represents you. Two islands that were once related only in stories and memories, now connected by a bridge. 

Or think of how you use a photograph. Until recently, it was something you’d either frame and display on a shelf, carry in your wallet, or keep stored in a closet. But online you can upload that photo where it has its own unique location. By creating the place, you create the ability to link to it — and the links create paths, which add to the the ever-expanding geography of cyberspace. 

Another important difference between the hyperlinks and traditional maps is that digital space allows us to create maps with conditional logic. We can create rules that cause a place to respond to, interact with, and be rearranged by its inhabitants. A blog can allow links to add comments or have them turned off; a store can allow product links to rearrange themselves on shelves in response to the shopper’s area of interest; a phone app can add a link to your physical location or not, at the flick of a settings switch. These are architectural structures for informational mediums; the machinery that enables everyday activity in the living web of the networked dimension. 

The great challenge of information architecture is to design mechanisms that have deep implications for human experience, using a raw material no one can see except in its effects. It’s to create living, jointed, functioning frameworks out of something as disembodied as language, and yet create places suitable for very real, physical purposes.  Information architecture uses maps and paths to create livable habitats in the air around us, folded into our daily lives — a new geography somehow separate, yet inseparable, from what came before. 

I was lucky enough to be part of a panel at this year’s IA Summit that included Andrea Resmini and Jorge Arango (thanks to Jorge for suggesting the idea and including me!). We had at least 100 show up to hear it, and it seemed to go over well. Eventually there will be a podcast, I believe. Please also read Andrea’s portion, and Jorge’s portion, because they are both excellent.

 
Update: There’s now an archive of podcasts from IA Summit 2011! And here’s a direct link to the podcast for this session (mp3). Or see them on iTunes.
 

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