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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 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

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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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:




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.

July 2 2010

A scrappy way of reliable double blind taste testing

by Hang

Most amateur double blind tastings are horrible from a statistical perspective. They barely shed any insight into the truth at all but, what’s worse, they give a false sense of knowledge. Last night, I made the assertion that top shelf vodkas are indistinguishable from each other and that any perceived taste differences were purely psychological. This lead me to be responsible for a quick, impromptu blind vodka tasting of 3 top shelf vodkas (Ketel 1, Grey Goose & Ciroc) between myself & 4 other skeptical participants (in retrospect, we should have added a well vodka as a control but we did try a well vodka after the blind tests and the difference was pretty apparent).

Our very helpful bartender marked the bottom of each glass with the vodka brand such that we could not see them, then we proceeded to taste & rate. Now, most amateur double blind studies I’ve seen rely on a single tasting then ranking. This is somewhat fine in a large lab setting with a sufficient number of participants and samples but, in our circumstances would lead to 0 statistical insight. The reason why is pretty simple, among a sample of 3 vodkas, there are only 6 different permutations. Thus, with 5 participants, it’s more likely or not, someone will get a “hit” purely by chance.

Instead, what we relied on was a double tasting procedure. Each person would sip & rank the vodkas, an independant 3rd party would then proceed to shuffle the order while we closed our eyes and we then proceeded to sip & rank the vodkas again. What we were looking for was not whether you could correctly assign the brand to a vodka (which is relatively hard) but whether you could rerecognize a vodka you had just drank (which is relatively easy). As it turns out, of the 5 participants, I was the only one who correctly determined how the vodka had been shuffled.

Now, despite the fact that I was crooning all night about how I “won” the challenge, this is not the correct conclusion to be drawn from the data. What it demonstrated was that at least 4 of the 5 participants were unable to distinguish top shelf vodkas with reliability, despite their certainty before revealing the results that there were clear and distinct differences. What this proves was that the perceived differences were purely physiologically and psychologically based and not as a result of the chemical qualities of the vodka. Additionally, it is unknown whether I could truly distinguish the difference. Remember, there’s still only 6 possible answers so it’s pretty probably that I got them right purely on luck. A further shuffle & taste would be able to shed more insight into this hypothesis but we were out of vodka at that point.

Most amateur double blind studies aren’t worth the blog post they’re written on because the authors have such a poor grasp of experimental setup that the data is worthless. Amateur studies don’t have the resources of a professional study to collect large enough amounts of data to make confident predictions, thus you need to scale back the expectations of the experiment to match the resources you have on hand. If you want to perform a double blind study with either a small sample set or experimental group, you need to use a repeated tasting procedure rather than a single tasting procedure or you run the risk of making assertions which are not statistically supported.

Guest post: Viewing the Internet as a third place

by Hang

I was invited by Nina Simons of the wonderful Museum 2.0 blog to contribute a guest post for a book club discussion on “The Great Good Place” by Ray Oldenberg. I’d been meaning to read that book for years now so I jumped at the chance.

Check it out:

Oldenburg’s book is important because it managed to put into words what many people only knew as a gut feeling or intuition. It dissected out this one important aspect of our public spaces and said “look, a pub is not just an economic institution for exchanging alcohol for cash, it also serves a vital social function.” What’s more, he demonstrated how certain social spaces either helped or hindered this social function and provided a framework to understand why certain pubs are great good places and others, lifeless drecks.

Faceted Identities Presentation at Internet Identities Workshop X

by Hang

This Monday, I gave a talk on Faceted Identities (the system that this blog is running on) at the Internet Identities Workshop X. The presentation lead to quite a bit of discussion, including some heated skepticism by Randy Farmer. The Notes for the session are on the IIW Wiki and there is also the video + slides:

Faceted Identites @ IIW X from Xianhang Zhang on Vimeo.

The persistently stupid idea

by Hang

There are only three types of ideas.

There are some ideas which are really smart ideas that sound smart on the surface and people repeat them to each other over and over again. If you come up with that smart idea independently, then you will tell someone and they’ll go “yeah, that’s already been thought of already, see X”. Using Vitamin C to prevent scurvy, realizing that worrying doesn’t make a situation better and stopping yourself from being a “nice guy” if you ever want success with women are all examples of this. These are not the ideas you have to be worried about.

There are some ideas which are stupid and sound stupid on the surface. If you come up with that stupid idea independently, then you will tell someone and they’ll go “that’s stupid and here’s why”. Here are 10 of them. These are not the ideas you have to be worried about.

There are some ideas which are stupid but sound smart on the surface. If you come up with that stupid idea independently, then you will tell someone and they will go “huh, that’s interesting”. These are the ideas you have to be worried about because they are the persistently stupid ideas. Persistently stupid ideas come to a person, are tried, fail and then disappear, leaving very little trace of their existence after they are gone. As a result, each generation comes up with the same persistently stupid ideas anew and wastes energy and resources chasing the same illusory pot of gold. This is why you have to be worried about them. The only way to avoid persistently stupid ideas is to learn how to become reflexively allergic to stupid.

I harp on this same theme a lot but I’m writing about it today because I was exposed twice in the same hour to two different persistently stupid ideas. Now, since both the people who these came from are personal friends of mine, I want to emphasize that I think the ideas presented are stupid but I, in no way, think the people who sent these to me are stupid. In fact, I discuss this further below. Anyway, onto the stupidities:

The first is an NPR article that repeats the assertion that when our privacy disappears, maybe shame will disappear along with it.

The second is an email in which in which a friend extols the virtue of video chat:

video chat is even better because the software just fades away and it’s true communication. It doesn’t require building software to support intent, it just creates a wide enough channel for communication and gets out of the way.

Both of these are persistently stupid ideas but I’m not going to tell you why they’re persistently stupid ideas.

Because what I just realized about persistently stupid ideas is that they’re perversely more harmful to smart people that dumb people. Each of these persistently stupid ideas has 100 different reasons why they could be wrong. But 99 out of those 100 aren’t the real reason and they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

If you were dumb and you came to be with a persistently stupid idea, I could take pity on you and provide you with any one of those reasons and you would accept it as valid and gently be persuaded from taking the stupid path. However, if you’re smart, I know that you’re going to see through any of the bad arguments and I would be forced to come up with the one correct argument to satisfy you.

But the truth is, I’ve forgotten what the reason is that both of these are a persistently stupid idea. At one point, I had read the literature, carefully constructed the argument, considered it from all sides, correctly rejected all the wrong arguments against it, worked through the implications of the correct reason, concluded that it was a persistently stupid idea, then promptly emptied out my brain of all that datum except that it was persistently stupid.

As a result, I’m not even going to try and persuade you that these are persistently stupid ideas. If you don’t believe me, you’re just going to have to put in your own time and effort to independently investigate them. However, the smarter you are, the harder it will be for you to figure out why they are persistently stupid because you will correctly reject all the utterly random, poorly thought out shit people pull out to justify it’s stupidity.

This is, perhaps, why I’m so fascinated by this topic of stupidity. Because it’s a unique curse that, paradoxically, affects the smartest of us the most.

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