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How should designers best take advantage of the current design shortage?

by Hang

About a month ago, I asked on Quora Why is there such a stunningly short supply of designers in Silicon Valley right now? This question lead to an amazing amount of high quality discussion, both in the answers to the question and in followup questions that it spawned. This question was also what provided sufficient impetus for Brian Gupton & I to start the Product Design Guild. Coming full circle, a followup question was asked today, What are some ways a designer could best take advantage of the short supply of designers? In answering it, I took the time to delve into a lot of the reasoning behind starting the Guild in the first place and also everything I had been learning since then. I thought it would be valuable to replicate this here:

In a market based economy, the most obvious short term tactics for a designer right now are:

  • Ask for more money
  • Ask for more responsibility

I’m going to argue actually that these are actually detrimental moves in the long run and that extreme imbalances in demand can, paradoxically, be bad for both designers and the design profession as a whole.

Demanding more compensation purely due to market conditions and not because you’re getting better as a designer means that you’re increasing the value captured:value delivered ratio. As this ratio approaches 1, you become an increasingly bad deal for smart companies and only companies ignorant enough to be overpaying for design are willing to hire you. This is an ultimately unsustainable practice which sours companies on the value of design and sets back the progress we’ve been making over the last few decades, demonstrating the importance of design as a a competitive business advantage.

You can see this happening already. Enthusiastic but way too junior designers are being offered “Lead (and only) Designer” roles at hot startups for lack of more experienced candidates. This may sound like a fantastic deal to the designer in the short term but they’re ultimately not ready for that role. The design that they produce are unrefined and immature, not delivering value to the company commensurate with their responsibilities. This ends up with both sides being unhappy and delivers a “poor user experience” to the company that impacts how they treat design in the future.

Instead, I counter-intuitively have the following advice: figure out a way to increase the total sum value of design in the world as a whole and your slice of the pie will rise commensurately.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues in the past month as we’ve been setting up the Product Design Guild. I’ve spent time talking to designers, entrepreneurs & investors and trying to understand how the Guild can best serve to help designers flourish.

What I think this means for designers in more concrete terms is:

  • Fight for design to have it’s rightful seat at the table. One advantage of designers being a hot commodity is that we can fight for real political change or threaten to walk. Rather than focusing on salary, focus on impact and choose companies which understand and respect design and let designers have the necessary independence & influence to make a meaningful change in the product.
  • Set aside time for education and self-improvement. As more and more responsibilities are piled on designers, it can be tough to carve out “non-productive” educational time. With tight deadlines approaching, it’s easy to efficiently crank out something you already know how to do for this next release and save the long term stuff for a later date. Except that later date is never going to come and you’ll realize that it’s 5 years later and you’re still churning out the exact same designs you were 5 years ago with your now rapidly obsoleting skill set. Designers need to push back against demands on their time and assign equal importance to growth as production. Use the clout you have now to fight against overly aggressive ship dates and over-demanding bosses. Take time to attend design events, read broadly, pursue creative hobbies and generally living an interesting & meaningful existence.
  • Leverage your talent as much as possible. This means focusing on trying to do more with what you have and being as efficient and effective as possible. Part of what differentiates experienced practitioners from novices in any field is a grace of action and conservation of motion. Only the minimum amount of effort is needed to accomplish a task and every action is streamlined down to it’s very essence. Be diligent about figuring out the most effective way to accomplish something. Learn all of the tricks and techniques that most effectively leverage the talent that you have. To this day, the best way of doing this is focused exposure to great talent. Jared Spool talked about this at the Warm Gun conference last month, junior sushi chefs in Japan go to work for master sushi chefs, doing scut work. Even though they never make sushi until very late in their apprenticeship, simply being around and observing master sushi chefs do their work is essential experience for becoming a master sushi chef. Similarly, junior designers should figure out a way to be exposed to experienced designers and simply observe how much more effortless design is when experience is gained. Without this knowledge, junior designers don’t even know what to strive for.
  • Recruit more great designers. It may seem paradoxical that bringing more competition for your job helps you in the long run but the demand for great designers is so extreme right now that even increasing the supply fourfold would not measurably affect your bargaining power. The current market is also extremely inefficient. In talking about this, many people both outside and also inside Silicon Valley are completely unaware of the extreme demand for designers. There are many capable designers locked up in big companies right now or working in other cities that could be persuaded to take the leap if given the right push. Similarly, there are a lot of people in product management, engineering, art & content production that have design aspirations but no clear path to becoming a designer. Recruiting all of these people into the design profession by selling how it’s both satisfying and rewarding can is only going to influence the power of design.
  • Take care of the design ecosystem. Historical trends in the last decade have not been kind to the design ecosystem. Design school education is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the fast paced and unique needs of Silicon Valley. Smaller team sizes means that many designers are now working as the sole designer on a team, without the ability to collaborate or learn from other designers. Even for companies that can still afford to maintain a design team, lower job loyalty means that mentorship becomes a losing economic proposition. Taking away productivity from your senior designers for mentorship only to have your junior designer take off and apply that learning at their next company makes you feel stupid the second or third time it happens. Where are we going to get our next generation of designers if this continues to be the case? The only way to fix this is to take time to contribute back to the design eco-system. If you’re a senior designer, take the time to mentor junior designers, even if you never directly benefit. If you’re a junior designer, work in co-operation with other designers instead of in competition. For designers overall, push to be less proprietary about your work and offer to share what you can with anyone who is interested.
  • Finally, spread the message. One designer, working alone can make an individual difference. One designer, mobilizing a thousand can affect real change. To make companies take notice and effect meaningful reform in the role of designers can only happen if the hear a clear and consistent message, coming from all angles. Designers are in a unique position right now where they hold a lot of potential power due to the extreme demand for designers. We should be taking advantage of this to make design a valued and sustainable profession that can keep us all happily employed in the long run.

The Product Design Guild is our attempt at addressing the issues that I’ve just outlined. Our ambitions are small to begin with but everything I’ve articulated is something that’s very much present in our thoughts as we figure out how to grow and develop the guild. If you’re interested in finding out more or want to participate, I encourage you to visit http://www.productdesignguild.com. I believe we’ve managed to strike upon a very compelling concept and I’m passionate to see the Guild affect meaningful positive change in the design ecosystem.

Social Software Sunday #4 – The “Kickstarter” social mechanism

by Hang

This is the fourth of a weekly series of posts on various aspects of social software design I find interesting, here is the full list. Each of these posts are written over the course of a few hours in a straight shot. Contents may be mildly idiosyncratic. To vote on what I should write about next, go to this Quora question.

ice cream sundae

This is going to be a relatively short post this week. I wanted to talk about a specific social mechanism that has promise and a few interesting areas where I’ve been toying with applying it. I’m going to call the social mechanism the “kickstarter mechanism” even though it obviously predates kickstarter.com.

The kickstarter mechanism allows people to perform contingent social actions. That is, they can make social promises of the form IF x, THEN y. On kickstarter, this promise manifests itself in the form of IF total promised donations exceed $limit, THEN I will donate $promise. Contingent social actions are an interestingly powerful tool because they cause incentives to line up in nice ways. In kickstarter’s case, the donor is mitigating the risk of a project not being serious by only committing to projects they know have a lot of energy behind them. In the requester’s case, they can gauge interest without having to commit to doing something until they’re sure a market exists.

Now, kickstarter style negotiations have been around since pretty much the beginning of negotiations. However, the beauty of moving it online is that computers happen to be uniquely suited at enforcing contingent promises.

There’s two ideas I’ve been loosely toying with over the last few months that have kickstarter mechanisms embedded in their core as a way of constructing interesting social spaces (the reason I’m not pursuing either of them is that they’re both basically features, not products):

Event Planning App A:

The first one is not too interesting and I’m sure someone has already built it. It allows people to create speculative events with their friends. Say I’ve wanted to go to SFMOMA for a while but it’s pretty low on my list of priorities. I’m sure there are other people in my friends circle who are in the same situation. Knowing that they would also be interested in going would be enough to spur me into action. What I could do is post a speculative event which says “If at least 5 people agree to this event, then we will all go to the SFMOMA together. If less than 5 people agree, then none of us will go”. It’s basically kickstarter applied to events.

Trial Balloon:

This is far more interesting to me. Trial Balloon is an internal corporate feedback tool designed for the giving of “risky” feedback. There are certain types of feedback where giving it might bring benefit to the company but could cause professional damage to your own career. Anything from “we should bring back free sodas to the breakroom” to “our marketing strategy is terrible and alienating our customers”. Typically, even for employees who want their company to do well, such feedback isn’t given because personal incentives aren’t aligned.

The way it works is that any employee of a company can leave feedback and it is initially anonymous. Other employees can also choose to agree with the feedback and they, too are anonymous. However, when enough people agree that it “kicks” over a pre-determined threshold  (this can be either determined by the poster or by the system in a clever way), everyone becomes unanonymous at the same time. Furthermore, the order of the names is randomized so it’s impossible to determine who posted the feedback in the first place.

Trial balloon allows you to leave safe feedback because it makes the powerful bit happen first and the dangerous bit happen only in contingent circumstances where they are substantially less dangerous. It’s more powerful than fully identified feedback systems since it allows for a wider range of feedback to be given but it’s also more powerful than purely anonymous feedback systems because the people agreeing have all agreed to stake their professional identity behind the statement if the conditions are met.

Some very rough wireframes:


Kickstarter mechanisms are an interesting tool to have in your toolbox if you’re designing a social application. If applied in the right way, they can greatly encourage participation by shuffling the commitment and risk around in interesting ways. I hope this post provides inspiration to some of you building social apps about how to make them more socially graceful and human using kickstarter mechanisms.

PS: If you’re thinking about building either of these, please email me at [email protected]. I’d love to see them in the wild and I’ve done quite a bit of thinking outside of this piece which may help you avoid going down some blind alleys.

To be notified of the next Social Software Sunday piece as it’s posted, you can subscribe to the RSS feed, follow me on twitter or subscribe via email:

Social Software Sunday #3 – All social software are inherently socio-technical systems

by Hang

This is the third of a weekly series of posts on various aspects of social software design I find interesting, here is the full list. Each of these posts are written over the course of a few hours in a straight shot. Contents may be mildly idiosyncratic. To vote on what I should write about next, go to this Quora question.


And one day the wizards of LambdaMOO announced “We’ve gotten this system up and running, and all these interesting social effects are happening. Henceforth we wizards will only be involved in technological issues. We’re not going to get involved in any of that social stuff.”

And then, I think about 18 months later — I don’t remember the exact gap of time — they come back. The wizards come back, extremely cranky. And they say: “What we have learned from you whining users is that we can’t do what we said we would do. We cannot separate the technological aspects from the social aspects of running a virtual world.

Clay Shirky – A Group Is It’s Own Worst Enemy

Social software is deceptive because it looks like conventional software but does not behave like conventional software. You can take a piece of social software and it seems possible to analyze it in terms of feature set, user experience, traction and all the conventional tools used to analyze software. But to do so fundamentally misses it’s essential nature. It is impossible to split social software into a technical system as distinct from a social system and analyze each piece separately. Instead,  all social software are inherently socio-technical systems.

To illustrate with an example (borrowed from Latour), let us assume that we have a road in a quiet residential area in which the main problem is that cars drive too fast down down it. There are at least two possible ways of solving this problem: adding in a speed bump or adding a “slow” sign at the start of the road.

Speed bumps provide an obvious physical mechanism that forces cars to slow down: driving too fast results in an uncomfortable jolt and possible damage to the car. If we were technical analysts, we would totally understand through decomposition, the purpose and mechanism of speed bumps. But a “slow” sign has no intrinsic property of slowness about it. Using technical decomposition, we can see that the molecules of the “slow” sign barely interact with the molecules of the car. Instead, “slow” signs operate purely due to the social mechanisms that society has set into place. I know that if I were to run a slow sign, there is the possibility of a policeman catching me and this could lead to a large fine which would ruin my day (not to mention my social conditioning to be lawful regardless of circumstance). Both the speed bump and the slow sign achieve roughly the same goal but through two very different mechanism.

Likewise, with all social software, only part of the mechanisms that ensue success are encoded in the technology platform. The rest of it is encoded in the social mechanisms of the community of users who are running it. Rather than analyze social software from the perspective of features and code, it is instead, far more correct and useful to analyze it in terms of what mechanisms are necessary for the software to succeed and only after that, to figure out which is the correct place to put them.

This makes social software a very different beast from conventional software because social software runs on humans in conjunction with machines. While machines can be manipulated by typing words into a text file and hitting compile, humans are much more finicky and dynamic (although, it the case of some game dynamics, almost as easily predictable and reliable). What this means is that every piece of social software has a huge chunk of it which has both limited visibility and is constantly in flux. What’s more the same code base running on different communities leads to intrinsically different pieces of social software and lessons learnt from one community cannot be directly applied to any other. On top of that, while only the developers have the privilege of checking in source code, any particular user can affect the social norms of a community. Unless you start development with these realities baked into your understanding of the world from the very beginning, you cannot produce humane social software.

The most visible arena where social software fails is as communities scale. Small, tight knit communities are capable of having a rich social layer and good communities manage to practically design themselves with merely the benign neglect of the software creators. However, as communities grow, the social fabric becomes weaker and weaker and less capable of supporting sophisticated mechanisms. Unless technical solutions are put into place, the community degrades into an underwhelming mess.

Last week, I talked about the Evaporative Cooling Effect and how one way to mitigate this is by unequal reputational roles for different members. In a small community, it is possible to do this purely through the social layer. Participants are able to remember who has particularly good domain expertise, who displays generosity and kindness & who is abrasive but knowledgeable.  Rich mental models of reputation are formed and different members in the group will be treated in different ways, abusive behavior will lead to shunning and admirable behavior will lead to respect. But there are intrinsic cognitive limits to how much reputational information we can hold and process (Dunbar’s number is commonly cited in this, usually incorrectly). Once communities exceed this limit, the ability to provide reputational distinction through purely social norms becomes impossible. Instead, reputation must be augmented through technical means (action logs, karma, reviews, etc).

However, overdeveloped technical systems can often be a much bigger problem than underdeveloped technical systems. It’s a common failing for technologists that to see software as the hammer that can hammer in every social nail. Access control and privacy is a perfect example of this kind of thinking.

Access control mechanisms are often developed under the assumption that no social layer exists whatsoever and all access control must be done purely through the technical layer. While this leads to cleanly analyzable assumptions and formally verifiable proofs, it also leads to rigid and inflexible access controls systems which do not at all map onto people’s actual work patterns. This, ironically means that workers routinely bypass the technical access control mechanisms anyway and routinely email “confidential” files around and rely purely on just social mechanisms to prevent unwarranted access.

This same security thinking has been applied to our consumer social arena with even more absurd results. Technologists love to crow on about how “privacy is dead” and that they now live their lives in a purely binary completely-in-public or not-on-the-internet mode. In reality, most of our sharing is done through mediums with rich social layers through which we use to mediate our privacy. While celebrities and occasional unlucky people thrust into the limelight end up having their private lives completely exposed, the average person still goes through life without any significant privacy violation because they manage to effectively modulate the social norms around privacy. Drunk party photos of them exist on Facebook but, as long as they take care not to friend their boss, none of their friends are assholes enough to be actively forwarding those pictures along. Facebook itself seems to fundamentally misunderstand at the most basic level and this is reflected in their byzantine privacy settings which were an attempt to encode all privacy data in a purely technological fashion. This is a topic worthy of a completely separate post so I’m going to punt on the discussion for now.

The only effective way of building social software is to view code and policy as two sides of the same coin. To build a successful social system, what is needed is to establish what are all the requisite mechanisms that are required for a successful social design and then figure out how to keep those mechanisms in place, via either the technical or social layer regardless of how either of them morph. This leads to a fundamentally different way of building compared to conventional software and is a large part of the reason why so many technologists struggle so much, building compelling social experiences. Too often, people who analyze social software systems only look at the technical aspects because those are the most visible, stable and generalizable and completely ignore the morphing social contracts that are happing at the same time. But doing so leads to unbalanced design which either does not provide enough technology to support the social layer or ignores the powers of the social layer and overcompensates with inflexible technology.

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October 11 2010

The Long Stick Startup

by Hang

I’ve been spending the last hour with a friend batting around potential startup ideas he wants to do around photo sharing. After brutally castigating him about how every one of his alternatives seemed uncompelling, I think I finally analyzed the nub of my disagreement.

His basic thesis was that photo sharing is a compelling activity because so many people are taking so many photos these days so there must be some way to capitalize on that trend. My response is that I’m unconvinced that there actually any people in the world who enjoy the intrinsic process of taking & sharing photos. Instead, photo share is an instrumental step as a means of achieving some intrinsic goal.

I share photos of me on vacation to prove to my friends that I’m an interesting person. I share photos of something funny that occurs because I want to amuse my friends. I share artsy photographs on flickr to prove to people I’m good at taking artsy photos. In all cases, photos are just the shortest and most efficient way for me to achieve the goal I want.

I made the following analogy: It was like if you were casting around, trying to invent the next big sport and you decided that it had to involve long sticks. The reason being, you have observed that many traditional popular sports involve long sticks. This may lead you to the next great sport but it is unlikely. Instead, it is far more productive to analyze the purpose behind long sticks in sport (as a lever that allows you to accelerate objects at far higher speeds generally) and find a way to deliver on that experience, whether it involves long sticks or not.

Social Software Sundays #2 – The Evaporative Cooling Effect

by Hang

This is the second of a weekly series of posts on various aspects of social software design I find interesting, here is the full list. Each of these posts are written over the course of a few hours in a straight shot. Contents may be mildly idiosyncratic. To vote on what I should write about next, go to this Quora question.

Ice cream sundae

The people who most want to meet people are the people who the least number of people want to meet. The people who are the most desperate to date are those who the least number of people want to date. The people who are the most eager to talk are the ones who the least number of people are interested in hearing. It is the ignorance of this fundamental principle that I see at the heart of so many failed social software designs. This is what I call the Evaporative Cooling problem and one I believe must absolutely be tackled head on by the designers of any communal gathering product unless they want to see their product descend into a squalid lump of mediocrity.

The Evaporative Cooling Effect is a term I learned from an excellent essay by Eliezer Yudowsky that describes a particular phenomena of group dynamics. It occurs when the most high value contributors to a community realize that the community is no longer serving their needs any more and so therefore, leave. When that happens, it drops the general quality of the community down such that the next most high value contributors now find the community underwhelming. Each layer of disappearances slowly reduces the average quality of the group until such a point that you reach the people who are so unskilled-and-unaware of it that they’re unable to tell that they’re part of a mediocre group.

Evaporative Cooling is a dynamic that can apply to both real world and online communities but the affordances of the Internet make it particularly susceptible to Evaporative Cooling. By looking at real world social structures, we can get some clues as to both what causes Evaporative Cooling and what are effective ways of preventing it.

Example the first:

Moving to San Francisco, it was amusing to me, unearthing the social structures around networking that go on here. There is the public “scene” of parties, events & mixers. Alongside this is an entire shadow community of private, invite only, exclusive events which is where all the real work in the Valley is done. It is possible to live your entire life in the Valley, wandering around amicably being blithely unaware of the shadow ecosystem. You could go to the same events every week with the same mix of aspiring entrepreneurs, social media marketers, CEOs of dipshit companies, bloggers & the occasional A-Lister who is forced to be there out of professional obligation.

But, if you’re halfway decent and capable of networking, you’ll soon find yourself with an entrée into a small part of the shadow economy. How far down the rabbit hole you choose to go is purely a function of your innate function and drive. For every layer of exclusivity, there’s almost certainly one more exclusive that you’re not aware of. Some of these venues are well known; TED, Davos, Sun Valley. But for every one of these you’ve heard of, there’s certainly at least a thousand more equally as exclusive gatherings you haven’t. After a while, you start to subscribe to what I call the Groucho Marx rule. You stop attending any event which would have you as a participant.

Lesson the first:

Openness is a major driver of Evaporative Cooling. If anyone can join your community, then the people most likely to join are those who are below the average quality of your community because they have the most to gain. Once they’re in, unless contained, they end up harming the health of the community over the long term. Communities that are allowed to select their members in some way are much more immune to Evaporative Cooling. Unfortunately, most viable internet businesses have no choice but to set their business model to open. The nature of most Web 2.0 businesses is that they depend on extracting a tiny bit of value from a large number of users and are betting on their fuck you exit from massively exploding in scale. Building a thriving community that tops out at 10,000 members over the course of 10 years isn’t going to pay the bills.

Example the second:

One of the communities that I’m part of down here is BayCHI. It’s a community that’s been around for 20 some years now and the quality of the talks and people who attend is still excellent. It seems to have only minimally succumbed to Evaporative Cooling. Why is this? A large part is due to what I call Social Gating. Social Gatings are mechanisms that allow participants to self-select out of the group. In the case of BayCHI, the social gate was the nicheness and unglamorousness of the content. The only people who would choose to participate in this group in the first place are those who find the talk sufficiently interesting to take 3 hours out of their life. This, by itself set a minimum bar.

Lesson the second:

Social Gating is a powerful force and, unlike direct exclusion, works in a much more scalable fashion at Internet sized growth rates. However, it is also a much more subtle one and requires a deft hand to get right. Nicheness is just one possible social gate, charging money is another popular one. But there are an entire constellation of more nuanced ones. Spelling, for example, is an interesting social gate. Just seeing a forum in which ppl spel liek thiz instantly polarizes you onto one side or the other. At the other extreme Quora, in it’s very early days had an incredibly Orwellian system in which Quora staff would routinely directly edit the contents of your answer to fix spelling and grammatical errors. I’m planning to dedicate an entirely separate Social Software Sunday blog post to Social Gating so stay tuned (pro tip: If you want to see it faster, go to Quora and add it to the list).

Example the third:

Another event that I attended this week that had a remarkably high quality of participants was Warm Gun. Among the people in the room were the Director of Design at Facebook and the Director of Design at Google. How did Dave McClure get these two in a room? He put them on a pedestal, literally. They were invited to take part in a panel discussion on how designers & engineers could better work together and it was the inducement of special treatment that made these very busy & high value contributors deign to be in the same room as us design peasants.

Lesson the third:

Unequal roles of participation can help shift the gradient of power and kill the evaporative cooling. When the community is small, such processes can be managed through the social layer. High value participants are treated as special because they have recognition & reputation from the community. But, as the community scales, these social mechanisms break down and often, if nothing is done to replace them, high value members get especially miffed at the loss of special recognition and this accelerates the Evaporative Cooling.

Explicit reputation systems like karma are probably the most popular way online communities have implemented unequal roles. But, for some reason, online communities seem particularly resistant to the type of elitist promotion structure common in real world institutions. In Academia, high school students have to fight to become undergraduates. Undergraduates have to fight to become PhD candidates. PhD candidates have to fight to become adjuncts. Adjuncts have to fight to become tenured and tenured professors have to fight to become Dean. I can’t even think of a single online community that bears even the slightest resemblance to this sort of power structure. This is something to ponder for a later piece.

Example the fourth

Finally, I will examine what I consider to be one of the most successful technological systems ever at scaling while maintaining quality: Facebook. I joined Facebook when it was less than a million members. Since then, it’s managed to grow by a factor of 500 but the quality of my experience has dropped by only maybe 50%. The reason why is because when some random person is participating in Facebook from Brazil, it has an absolutely negligible effect on my experience. Because every user only ever see their tiny corner of Facebook, every user is in direct control of their own experience. Lest you think this is a property that is intrinsic to Social Networks, Orkut was brought down precisely by those random people in Brazil. Facebook’s design, especially in the very early days, was especially conscious of this design dilemma and designed around it masterfully.

Lesson the fourth:

There are two fundamental patterns of social organization which I term “plaza” and “warrens”. In the plaza design, there is a central plaza which is one contiguous space and every person’s interaction is seen by every other person. In the warren design, the space is broken up into a series of smaller warrens and you can only see the warren you are currently in. There is the possibility of moving into adjacent warrens but it’s difficult to explore far outside of your zone. Plazas grow by becoming larger, warrens grow by adding more warrens.

These are the two fundamental patterns of social spaces. Every social space can be decomposed down to a collection of plazas and warrens. In Facebook, your profile, friends and newsfeeds are warrens but fan pages, groups & events are plazas. Twitter is mostly a warren with the exception of trending topics which is the one plaza. On forums, the front page and topic listings are plazas but each forum thread is a warren.

Plazas and warrens both have their unique set of tradeoffs. Warrens are notoriously difficult to get started. New users, stuck in empty warrens often don’t know how to connect to hubs of activity. The onboarding process is crucial and still not well understood (Friendfeed found that people needed to add at least 5 friends to have a reasonable chance of sticking with the service). On the other hand, plazas only need to be started once and then they remain a hive of activity for new users to participate in from the first day.

Plazas are much more visible than warrens so it’s easier to watch and understand your community. In communities, like in justice, sunlight is often the best disinfectant and the neglected spaces often become thriving breeding grounds for all sorts of social pathologies.

But the one absolute killer feature of warrens is that they allow your community to become almost perfectly scale free and grow like mad without ever sacrificing quality. This alone, makes them a design element that’s heavily worth studying to figure out what are the good social designs.

It’s also interesting to note that the real world is intrinsically warren while the online world is intrinsically plaza. In real life interactions, the physics of sound mean that we can only ever talk to a few people at once. Every person gets a “personalized” social life. To give every person the exact same content takes special work. Online, the easiest model to program is to serve the exact same bits to every requester. To provide “personalized” content takes special work. It is interesting to observe how this difference has influenced the evolution of these two mediums.


Evaporative Cooling is a fundamental social dynamic and one that is corrosive to the long term health of communities. This post contains barely 1% of everything I could write about Evaporative Cooling but I’m already at 2000 words and I’m not looking to write a novel here. They say ideas are worthless and execution is everything. Since I’ve gotten to the Valley, I’ve heard probably close to 100 pitches for social products in random conversation. About half of them involved a meeting place dynamic of one kind or another and about 80% of those, as they were conceived, would be killed dead by Evaporative Cooling. It is absolutely essential if you’re to be designing a social product that you deal with this issue up front or you’re just a dead man walking.

To be notified of the next Social Software Sunday piece as it’s posted, you can subscribe to the RSS feed, follow me on twitter or subscribe via email:




Announcing: The Product Design Guild

by Hang

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a small side project which I’m finally ready to announce:

The Product Design Guild is a space where designers bring in the work they’re doing in their everyday jobs and engage in a collaborative design process with other designers.

To find out more & sign up, please visit:


If you can, I would appreciate it if you could pass this on to any designer friends you may know, especially those in the bay area who are freelancers or working as the sole designer at a startup. We are hoping to making this a resource that improves both the quantity & quality of designers in the Valley.

Social Software Sundays #1 – Humor on the web & how to stop it

by Hang

This is the first of a weekly series of posts on various aspects of social software design I find interestinghere is the full list. Each of these posts are written over the course of a few hours in a straight shot. Contents may be mildly idiosyncratic. To vote on what I should write about next, go to this Quora question.

The original impetus for this came from an impromptu Caltrain ride with Ben Newman, an engineer at Quora. During that ride, we had an interesting conversation about Quora’s particular attitudes towards humor (they’re pretty dour) and why that was the case. As it turns out, the Quora staff had thought pretty carefully about the nature of humor and its effects on communities and their operational procedures reflect a certain set of beliefs they hold. I’m not going to attempt to speak for Quora based on a 20 minute conversation a few weeks ago but some of their thinking did remind me of some of the stuff I had also been thinking about with regard to humor on the web.

The Internet has a citizenry. Like how some people self identify has African-American or Asian-American, there is a subset of the population for which it would be most accurate to label them Internet-American. Not everyone who has ever been on the Internet is part of this group. Most people are merely tourists or commuters, they come in, they visit a while but, at the end of the day, they go home to their real lives. For the Internet-Americans, the Internet is, at least in part, their real lives and meatspace existence is the culturally foreign experience.

Like the founding of any new migrant nation, the citizenry of the Internet is a motley crew. Some were lured by the promise of virgin lands, yet to be explored, others by the promise of a new identity. But like any new settlement, by far the most dominant were the people who arrived to escape the oppression of their homeland. They were the ones who felt under appreciated, misunderstood, ignored or abused by their real world peers and found refuge among their kin online. Together, they built an alternate culture, one that was a deliberate snub against those who had rejected them. It is from these foundations that a particular strain of Internet culture was born and the effects of this evolution are still felt online today.

To fully explore the extent of this would be it’s own, separate, mammoth task. For this post, I’m solely going to look at the ramifications of such an evolution in the context of humor and how it has become operationalized in a way that may seem unfamiliar to those who are not citizens of the Internet.

In real life, almost all of our opportunities to deploy humor are with people who we already know or would like to know better. While we use humor for many purposes, we crucially care about the reaction from the other person. For the most part, humor is deployed to give other people pleasure.

On the web, the affordances of the interaction are different. Most of our online interactions are with people we do not know and cannot fully empathize with. Humor shifts from less of a bonding activity and into more of a performative one. This is not entirely without precedent in our offline worlds. If you listen to interviews by prominent comics about their childhood, often they turned to humor as a defense mechanism. It was a way they discovered to deflect harm or attract attention. Humor was a way for comics to validate their worth and prove to themselves their superiority. To understand humor on the web, you have to look at it from this perspective.

By far the largest majority of humor on the web comprises of memes, catchphrases, remixes and repetition. All your base are belong to us, lolcatz, goatse and the rest. Some of them are funny. With the enormous profusion that is characteristic of the Internet, it would be impossible for some of them not to be funny. But, by far, the majority are not. They are tired, cliched rehashes of beaten to death jokes. Why then, do they persist? Because their goal never was to be funny, your amusement is never the prime concern. Instead, they exist as a credential of citizenship. It is a communication from the poster that he belongs to some in-group for which a set of memes form the common language and the humor is both simultaneously inclusionary of those who get the reference and exclusionary to those who do not. It’s of no coincidence that Family Guy is a show particularly beloved by the Internet citizenry, given that a full half the jokes on there comprise of mere recognition of some obscure, pop cultural phenomena.

The next largest contingent of internet humor comprises of pedanticism. Ask a serious question on the internet and there is some slight chance you may get a serious answer but you can almost always be guaranteed a series of stupid answers which answer the letter of the question while avoiding the spirit. Again, regardless of whether the answer was serious or subversive, the purpose was almost never to be helpful, by as a validation of cleverness. To answer seriously provides your bona-fides as an expert who is able to intelligently comment on a domain but to provide a joke answer is much easier to accomplish and gives you a platform to demonstrate your wit. This, as far as I can gather, is why Quora is so ruthless about extirpating parody answers. For any given question, a few people might have the requisite domain expertise to give a serious answer but almost anybody can provide a parody and, while a few might be genuinely funny, most will be a lazy attempt at recognition which contributes nothing but a sense of smug self-satisfaction for the poster.

Thus far, I have delved into two particular types of Internet humor but the same general principle applies to almost everything else the Internet citizenry writes, both online and off. Humor serves in a pure operational context, to prove worth, intelligence, belonging or superiority. It is not there to please, delight or amuse (except insofar as these further an operational goal) because it is rare that you could care enough to want to do so.

I want to note again at this point that this is not a description of all humor present everywhere on the Internet, just that deployed by the particular segment of the population which I term the Internet citizens. It has been interesting over the years, as the number of tourists on the web has started to overwhelm the citizenry, how the different cultures have merged and adapted. In a way, it mirrors the integration of African-American culture into the mainstream starting from the 60’s and continuing on into today. Most web literate people are familiar with the lingo and conventions of the Internet citizenry now and some of it has shifted into the mainstream so much that the origins have become murky. At the same time, entire communities are forming which do not derive from the legacy of Internet culture and want nothing to do with it. They are finding, much to their surprise that the virgin lands they thought they were inhabiting actually have injuns on them and that they’re none too happy for the intrusion.

I think it’s essentially for anyone trying to deploy an online community right now to be aware of the various factions and interest groups that occupy the web and how they can be both an asset and liability to your efforts. The last 10 years has been littered with the corpses of various naive corporate community building attempts who inadvertently blundered head on into these swamps like the Chevy Tahoe “Make your own ad” campaign, the Time 100 4chan stunt or Mr Splashypants among hundreds of others. I hope this impromptu ethnographic sketch provides some degree of insight into how to properly navigate the Internet and effectively deal with the natives.

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September 26 2010

Social Software Sundays #0 – An Update

by Hang

Sundae - Before

On February 26th, I made a post entitled Career Transitions, detailing the failure of Bumblebee Labs as a startup and outlining my next steps. Now, exactly 7 months later, I’m ready to detail what’s gone on in the intervening time. First things first, I accepted a job offer at a startup called peel one month ago as a “social experience designer”. The company is still in stealth mode so I wasn’t really quite sure what I could publically say about them. Let’s just say I’ll be heading up their Social Television initiative and there’s going to be some exciting developments coming down the pike.

Even at the beginning of the job hunt, I anticipated that it would be a long process. I wanted time to scope out the scene, understand and surface all the various interesting opportunities and get a better understanding of where I best fit into this crazy landscape. Publically, I was predicting 3 –  4 months. In the end, it turned out to be 6. I’m not going to pretend that the entire process wasn’t hard work & demoralizing at times but, looking back on it in retrospect, that period did serve to form the basis of relationships & experiences that will reap dividends over time.

What surprised and gratified me was validation that the problems I were thinking about were interesting, my level of insight was high and what I was doing was important. It was heartening that people who were very senior up at very important firms, taking the time out of their day to meet with me and explore what I had to say about social experience design. On the other hand, what surprised and disappointed me were the tiny number of companies I could find that I regarded as trying to do anything truly innovative with social. I met up with a lot of companies who were merely trying to stir fry a bunch of existing social features into a hopefully appealing amalgam. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with this. It’s a strategy that is probably as good at making money as any other. It’s just that with so much innovation yet to be explored in social experience design, it’s disheartening to find so many people unwilling or unable to really push the boundaries.

Now that my life has started to busy up again, I’ve also found the urge to take up side-projects. One that I’m extraordinarily excited to be starting but not ready to announce publically is the formation of a Product Design Guild in San Francisco. The other is this, a regular series of blog posts I’m going to title Social Software Sundays.

This gestation period has also given me a better sense of what it is that is interesting of the stuff I have to say. I’ve had countless conversations, pitches and discussions with people and I’ve been slowly reworking, refining and adapting the messaging and positioning over time. I’d been toying with the idea of starting to contribute some of this knowledge towards the public domain. A question on Quora finally prompted me to start to list out all the various problems I was interested in and even I was a bit stunned with how much was in my buffer. After confirming support that it seemed like a good idea, I have decided to write a new blog post every Sunday about a different area of Social Software that I find interesting. To help guide what I should write next, I’ve decided to open it up to the community. I’ll be using Quora as a platform to help manage the community element but the writing will appear here.

Looking forward to writing my first Social Software Sunday next week :).

First thoughts on Apple Ping

by Hang

Apple has just recently announced their first foray into the social space and it’s an interesting product, if only because it embodies the Apple way of doing social. Apple Ping is a social network for music, embedded into iTunes. What it is, above anything else, is what MySpace should have become.

MySpace served an amazing niche in that it served as a platform for bands to reach audiences. Before, every band had to build it’s own website, maintain it’s own mailing list and acquire each fan painfully & manually. MySpace leveled the playing field by giving anyone those tools for free and letting bands concentrate on the more important task of making, promoting & selling music.

I think the idea behind Ping is great. That music should be a social activity is a bit of a no-brainer duh type revelation. There are at least a dozen different companies attacking this from all different angles but Apple’s entrance is appealing because it has an asset others cannot have, verified purchase data. This is an incredibly strong position to leverage off of.

However, I think Apple’s biggest mistake with the actual implementation of the product is that they haven’t realized that most conversations about music are not about music. There are the super-fans who find the ability to connect with bands appealing. Those were the ones who, before web 2.0 would actually visit band websites and read their blog posts. However, these represent a tiny minority of music listeners. For the most part, the average consumer is happy to simply listen to a piece of music without any special desire to investigate the story behind it. Instead, for them, the social purpose of music is that music serves as a conversation proxy. That is, they use music as a channel to open up a conversation with their friends about life in general. I’ll ask how that concert you went to last night but what I really want to know is who you went with, why you like that band, how you heard about that band, what you did before & afterwards, how’s your week been, heard any funny stories recently etc.

Apple Ping is a place to have conversations about music. What Apple Ping should be is a place to have conversations involving music. The difference is the audience. Because Apple Ping is it’s own separate walled garden, the only people who are going to go to the effort of checking are the people who are passionate about music which means the only content that is appealing for me to produce is conversations about the actual music itself. I’m going to write on Apple Ping about what my thoughts are on the new Lady Gaga CD but I’m not going to write about who wants to go to a concert with me next month since the people who would potentially go with me are not on Ping, they’re on Facebook.

What Apple needs to do to make Ping a success is simple. They need to turn it into a Facebook App. They need to leverage their core strengths to enable to people to have conversations involving music that they never could have before. If they do this, Ping will be a success. If they do not, it will die a miserable death of neglect since it’s simply not sustainable to have a conversation platform that’s only about music.

Facebook Places & Keeping up with the Joneses

by Hang

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena that I’ve been experiencing since the launch of Facebook Places that I’m going to argue could negatively damage both the product and people’s social lives in general. I’m going to dub this the “Keeping up with the Joneses effect”.

As soon as Facebook Places launched, I had a couple of my friends who were essentially, sneak bragging full time on it. That is, they were constantly posting about all the hip bars & restaurants they were visiting in a very casual, FYI manner.

The real reason for such behavior is that people are using it as a form of identity construction. “I am at place X so, therefore, I am the the type of person who is Y”. But such overt displays of bragging are socially frowned upon so instead, a utility narrative is constructed. “The reason I’m posting on there to let my friends know where I’m at so they could possibly join me” (foursquare used “the reason I’m checking in is to collect badges” as their plausible cover). What this allows people to do is use the utility narrative as a means to plausibly deny that their true purpose was identity construction, aka they are sneak bragging.

This is something that happens all the time in real life (I’ll be telling you about a funny thing that happened to me and casually drop in a reference that it all happened at this hip bar, the real purpose was to let you know I’m a hip person without it seem like I was bragging) so the fact that Facebook Places has made this behavior much more efficient to perform  is a mildly annoying but tolerably narcissictic addition to my social life. What I think will be interesting is what happens to the rest of us.

I don’t lead nearly as interesting a life as I have most people believe I do but, because my friends are not with me the majority of the time, I’ve been able to exploit that ambiguity to craft a socially interesting identity for myself. I constantly give off the impression that my nights and weekends are packed with exciting & socially validating activities instead of the actual boring sitting at home alone that usually happens. I’m not unique in this, I informally polled a couple of friends and they all admitted to some degree of social massaging for the purposes of “keeping up with the Joneses”.

Facebook Places removes my ability to perform such social massaging. The use of Facebook Places as a sneak bragging tool means that implicit narratives are created by the absense of activity. If I check into hip bar #1 tonight and only use Places again to check into hip bar #2 a month later, that must mean nothing of sufficient interest happened in the intervening time. Before, I could casually mention hip bar #2 the next time I saw you and let you infer that I go to hip bars all the time but I can’t do that anymore because if I did go to hip bars all the time, I would have checked in to every single one of them on Facebook Places.

So, now that I’m confronted by the few of my peers who actually are leading the socially interesting lives they claim they are so I am faced with three possible reactions:

  1. I can actively change my behaviour to become competetive with my friends
  2. I can accept my new identity and reveal to the world just how pathetic my social life is or
  3. I can construct an external reason why I refuse to use Facebook Places in order to maintain the plausible fiction about my social life.

While some insecure teenagers might adopt option 1 and I’ll bet there will be at least a few geeks with an extreme case of stockholm syndrome towards Facebook that will adopt option 2, option 3 is, by far, the most preferable one. If I can claim Facebook Places is a horrible invasion of my privacy of that it’s a meaningless and shallow ritual or even that I prefer *experiencing* an event to *telling* people about the event, then I have figured out a way maintain that plausible fiction that I actually am able to keep up with the Joneses in my network. This is not to say that I will even know this is what I’m doing. For most people, this degree of rationalization happens well below the concious layer.

Thus, I predict that if I’m correct, over the next few months, Facebook Places is going to come under an extreme amount of criticism. What’s more, it will be the type of criticism which geeks are uniquely unsuitable to handle because it will be vague, mutually contradictory and factually incorrect. The geek instinct is to try and educate the users about why their complaints are invalid without realizing that there was never any desire for the complaints to be valid in the first place. If this does happen, the only way for Facebook to make Places relevant is to address the core issue for these people which is the creeping fear that we are, indeed, not keeping up with the Joneses and everyone will finally know.

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