Archive for May, 2010

Designing social spaces

Lately I’m collecting a lot of design writing — these are great posts about building community sites.

Applying “A Pattern Language” To Online Community Design. I recommend this social web perspective on Christopher Alexander’s classic study of how towns and buildings function & how we create successful shared spaces. Excerpts:

A Community of 7,000: Communities that are too large are not effective. While this doesn’t mean you should limit the size of your overall website, you should consider ways of creating smaller sub-communities within the website if it is big. Creating sub-communities within the larger whole is one way to go about this. Another option is to limit exposure to the full membership… The purpose here is to make each member feel as though they matter in the grand scheme of things. If the user sees a membership roster that includes a 100,000 names, they’ll feel like a tiny fish in a huge pond.

Your Own Home: Everyone should have their own home in the real world, a place they can go to at the end of the day that’s safe and secure. In the online world, this would be the profile page. People want to customize their home, make it their own, host friends there, put their mark on it and let people know that this is their space and that it reflects their personality. In the online world, people want to do the same thing.

Short Passages: Moving from one profile to another should be quick and comfortable. You want members to interact with one another, and so the pathways between them should be inviting. Think of ways to encourage interaction between members along these passages. One way to do this is through comments on the activities of others.

(If you dig architecture or the metaphor of websites as buildings / living space, you may enjoy Design from a Diagram.) I found good advice about applying Alexander’s methods in everyday design work in Ryan Singer’s “Designing With Forces“ talk (52 min). He suggests that instead of starting out your site / product by making a list of requirements, we look carefully at the surrounding context and think in terms of the “forces” acting on it, e.g. “I can never remember to make followup phone calls,” “I hate data entry” or “I need to pick up a teakettle without burning myself.” It’s helping me sketch a cohesive vision for a web app today.

Metafilter’s Matt Haughey wrote up great community tips I keep returning to. MeFi’s always stood up as an example of a respectful, well-managed community with a high signal-to-noise ratio. From his introduction,

hate the term User Generated Content. I never use the phrase when talking about this stuff and I’ll never use it when writing about it. I consider it a pejorative that reveals a lot about the person saying it. It makes members of your site feel like dutiful robots, crapping content that you convert into cash.

Johnny Holland’s What’s Up With Social Objects?

Which is a more accurate description of gifting on Facebook: the relationship between two friends and the practice of giving gifts on birthdays, or the graphic of the beer mug? The more accurate description of user interaction would be that which explains the practice of gift giving, the symbolic act of presenting a gift, the Facebook tradition of recognizing birthdays, and the social space in which gifts are seen by others such that birthdays create a cause for a stretch of social interaction.

And tips on applying social interaction design thinking:

All content in the world of web 2.0 is communication. Yes, it is information and it informs. But it is created and left behind by countless individual acts of communication — with the intent to communicate. If you view social web content as information you’re still in web 1.0.

Designing for Social Interaction breaks down the idea of online “friends” into several types and gives tips for designing social web apps around them.

The average number of friends on Facebook is 130, and many users have many more. Yet despite having hundreds of friends, most people on Facebook only interact regularly with 4 to 7 people, and for 90% of Facebook users, 20% of their friends account for 70% of all interactions. We also see this with phone usage. We have hundreds of people in our phone contacts, yet 80% of phone calls are made to the same 4 people.

Our social web tools must start to understand the strength of ties, that we have stronger relationships with some people than with others.

On Invention

“I just invent, then wait until man comes around to needing what I’ve invented.”
— Buckminster Fuller, quoted in Jack Cheng’s essay.

We struggle sometimes explaining LOVELAND to people. “You’re making a group buying system for houses?” they ask, or “People bid on land auctions for cheap?” in an attempt to find the nearest conceptual anchor or category. They read the website and still have no idea what it’s about. We’re still learning how to communicate the vision and the very real things we’re building (it’s actual land, made of dirt, but also online), and although some friends ‘get it’ I still feel a gap in understanding holding us back.

The problem with the Newton wasn’t any physical or technical problem. Those are easy to surmount. The problem that broke the Newton was that nobody was prepared for it. There was no mental slot in people’s heads that the Newton could glide into.

There’s a cozy, pre-existing slot in people’s brains that the iPad fills quite nicely. “Oh,” they say. “It’s a big iPhone.”

You don’t just slap a product out there and hope it will succeed. You have to prepare people for it.

— The iPad, and the Staggering Work of Obviousness, @amyhoy

Is this a game company, a charity, community development organization, a social network site, or a real-estate investment company? All of these and none. VCs scratch their heads trying to categorize us. I can relate to Mike at Crowdspring when he writes, “Our business model, and others that are popping up every day, is still so young that the milk in my refrigerator is nearly as old. A challenge faced by many of these businesses is to find a way to introduce to the market, and to their potential customers, a new-to-the-world product, service, or category.” Remember how Twitter seemed pointless to so many until it finally ‘clicked?’

I joined LOVELAND precisely because of its novelty. I had never heard of anything like it, and given the chance to create something new rather than yet another social network I jumped in. We didn’t know what would happen — heck, one of the first ideas was an augmented reality flower garden on the floor of an art gallery — but we were captivated, and so are hundreds of others. We’re making a playful platform for people to own land and gather around their shared spirit of building something where nothing was. By growing our Detroit presence we’re inviting the world’s attention and energy into a city fertile for creative reimaginings of the urban landscape. Our inchvestors all come for different reasons; go read the delightful things they’ve written so far. I’m excited to be crafting the tools and space to let them show us how big they can make an inch. We’ve profiled a few active projects happening on this technical foundation.

Come meet the gang this Saturday May 15th at the micro meetup at Noisebridge, or Tuesday the 18th at SF Beta.


I came across these photos from Olafur Eliasson‘s latest installation in Beijing, Feelings are facts, over at designboom. I saw a book of his work this winter and liked the more geometric pieces, but love, love, love this one: spaces filled with shifting, saturated colorfog.

(images from designboom)

When I started Rivers, this was a guiding principle. The first sketches were actually volumetric color fields oozing around with objects and networks floating around in them.

As it developed, I kept these color gradients as they materialized onto surfaces. I’m just a sucker for these palettes (and funny how much the ground here looks like Eliasson’s ceiling above :)