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.
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.