Jul 27, 2008

Shirky’s Law and why (most) social software fails

Michael Nielsen examines why some social software tools fail in his recent post, Shirky’s Law and why (most) social software fails.

Shirky’s Law states that the social software most likely to succeed has “a brutally simple mental model … that’s shared by all users”.

Mr. Nielsen gives three reasons why it is so hard for software developers to obey this law. The keeping it simple part is pretty hard to do and many times is the result of happy accidents and unplanned consequences.

A strange consequence of all this is that much of the most successful social software was invented by accident.

Ward Cunningham invented the first wiki because he was tired of responding to user’s requests to update a website he ran. To save himself time, he made the page editable, and told them to update it themselves. He was shocked when this small change utterly transformed the dynamics of the site.

One of the first widely used pieces of blogging software, Blogger, was originally a small part of a much more ambitious project management system. The project management system never caught on, but Blogger took off.

The team that developed Flickr wasn’t originally building a photo sharing service. They were building a multiplayer online game, and decided to let players share photos with one another. When they realized the players were more interested in sharing photos than playing the game, they dumped the game, and built Flickr.

Shirky’s Law does not mean the software itself needs to be simple. Social software like Digg and FriendFeed uses complex algorithms to rank the relative importance of submitted items. But the complex parts of the software are hidden from the user, and so do not add to the complexity of the users’ mental models.

There are many lessons to be learned in these examples: that the solutions came from trying to solve much more complex problems, that complexity does not need to show up in the user interface, and that simple solutions can transform processes.

I especially like the story of Blogger and it's origins rooted in project management software. Blogger has achieved significant commercial success which may have clouded enterprise thinking about blogs and social software (this blog is hosted on Blogger although this post is neither an endorsement nor a critique). I have talked to many enterprises that see little or no use for blogs in the corporate IT toolkit. Yet here is Blogger, the sole survivor of an effort to improve communication and collaboration of a complex business process, project management. The designers of the Blogger's parent tool knew that blogging (or blogging-like activity) was integral to project management and included it in their product. The Blogger example illustrates that enterprises need to shake-off the "consumer" labeling of blogs (and other social software) and realize that many social tools originated in the attempt to solve complex interactive situations that benefit business processes. 

So while you're planning the next big thing, don't forget to watch out for the simple successes.

BTW: If you liked this essay then follow the link to Mr. Nielsen's essay on The Future of Science. Although it is focused on collaborative markets for the scientific community - and having learned the lesson that that answers aren't always where you expect to find them - this essay provides good food for thought when considering other communities or working models.

[Thanks Volker]

Michael Nielsen

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