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

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.

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