Tag Archives: web 2.0

Rare Content; Well Done

Medium is a platform born from the minds behind Twitter for publishing and discussing longer-form works. Rather than targeting the rapid back-and-forth microblogging niche Twitter addresses, Medium allows for more detailed contributions, often resembling feature articles or editorials. Quality, user-generated content is rare on the internet; and Medium provides one of the cleanest, least intrusive ways of making it accessible.

Source: Medium

Medium is currently a relatively small service—at least compared to Twitter—but enjoys a strong, growing community of dedicated contributors posting, sharing, recommending, and curating the growing pool of content.

Pinning down an identity for Medium in this nascent stage is tricky. On the one hand it employs many of the extrinsic reward motivations—such as reputation and scoring—popularised by content aggregators and recommender services. I’ve touched on these concepts in previous posts, and Medium compels users to share and rate content in the same ways that Digg, Reddit, and Slashdot have in the past. These services leverage the desires of users by allowing ‘up voting’ of articles to surface—or bury—quality content. This currency of reputation and scoring is paired with a robust system of curation and tagging that tasks users of Medium to thematically organise content and build their own personally-curated collections.

By marrying these two systems together Medium is able to entirely self-organise around user behaviour. It is as meaningful for users to contribute high-quality content as it is for them to gather and collate that content in a collection. Whether they’re authors or curators, users of Medium can be a part of a rich ecosystem where their contributions be recommended, voted, scored, and—most importantly—commented on.

Medium is able to deliver and package this content so successfully because it relies on the same simplicity that propelled Twitter into the stratosphere. It does away with so much of the artifice and bloat associated with most WYSIWYG publishing platforms and offers an elegant, direct platform. Like Twitter, Medium puts the simplicity of content first-and-foremost. It is easy to publish, read, and recommend items because every piece of the workflow is built in service of the user.

Usability and user-centered design is always best when it is simple. Rather than being caught up in the zeitgeist of sacrificing simplicity for the latest interfaces, fads, or ‘feature-added’ hooks Medium is able to provide such a rich user experience by confidently relying on the strength of its contributors and providing as few distractions as possible to the quality of their work.

Simplicity isn’t just a feature for Medium; it is their chief strategic advantage.


Further Reading: I highly recommend Giles Colborne’s book Simple and Usable for any and all of questions you have about user experience and user-centered design.

Colborne, G. (2011). Simple and Usable: Web, Mobile, and Interaction Design. Berkeley: New Riders.

What’s in a game? Free-riders and the participation problem

Major online communities such as Reddit, Digg, and Slashdot are at the cornerstone of the social web: crowd-sourced content hubs that tackle the difficult task of collecting, evaluating, and promoting quality user-generated content. Loosely related, these platforms all perform a similar task of meta-moderating—or curating—content by tasking users to submit, up vote, or bury content based on its perceived value.

Source: Reddit.com

The only way to stratify the wealth of content they gather and distinguish it within these communities is to use intangible tiers of reputation and visibility. The idea to convert currencies of attention and reputation directly into positive feedback (ie. ‘Karma’ points) provides some tangible marker of digital success. The more popular or approved a piece of content is, the more visibility it—and its creator/poster—gains. The reputation-based Web is all about communities, participation, and peering; it is not, however, about authorial control or objectively professional qualities. Regardless, they are popular to a staggering degree and produce and promote untold amounts of content every minute of the day.

Inside and behind this content overload is a fundamental question of motivation: why does anyone contribute at all?

It seems that the mechanics at play here are some of the most interesting  qualities disseminated in economics, maths, and psychology: specifically, the ideas behind game theory.

The essential kernel of game theory is easy to grasp. Game theory is founded on a very simple but powerful way of schematising conflict. The underlying mechanics of John Von Neumann’s theory of economic games models the behaviour of perfectly logical parties interested only in winning. The dilemma of online producers and consumers alike resembles a game where players can only win by having access to quality content. Communities like Reddit and Slashdot expose this content through necessary participation, but those who contribute nothing still benefit from the results even if they put in no work to achieve them—often known as the free-rider dilemma.

The free-rider game is originally based on public transport, but remains true for modelling online communities. It posits that those who are willing to pay for the use of the railway system subsidise those who do not, because a single non-paying commuter is unlikely to bankrupt the whole system or take up an unreasonable amount of room on the train. Reddit users can easily rationalise lurking or browsing to their heart’s content, because their non-participation has a minuscule effect on the health of the system and the entire systems keeps chugging along.

And here’s the thing: the free-riders are right. They can reap all the benefits of vibrant, online communities without contributing any energy themselves. It is perfectly rational and provides the best possible outcome for the end-user. There is nothing wrong with thinking this way, that is, until everybody starts thinking ‘rationally’. Individually rational action—letting others do the participatory work—leads to a collectively irrational outcome: no one has any access to content—the trains stop running. The bargain of leeching off the system is a fiction; and ultimately, the only bargain offered by non-participation is a Faustian one.

But, since these repositories of user-generated content represent a kind of online collectivism that mired in an anonymous tide of mass mediocrity it is almost impossible to rely on anything other than the altruism of enthusiastic amateurs to produce meaningful work. Web 2.0 has demonstrated a frightening degree of indifference to participation as beautifully outlined by Jakob Nielsen’s treatise on participation inequality, and the intermittent contributions of idle users cannot be relied upon. However, the reputation-based currencies (such as ‘karma’) that these content-aggregators employ might as well be labelled as the bribes they are, because without an overt reward system, these communities would languish.

Source: Nielsen Group

With that in mind, these communities are resoundingly successful at encouraging contributions. Even if their scoring systems can be criticised as self-aggrandising, self-indulgent, and insular, the economics of reputation do directly encourage users to actively work within the rules of the system: it is effectively bribing them to participate. And in doing so, the system becomes universally more valuable to everyone. So long as users participate actively in posting and rating content they are organising the platform and allowing content to move properly through the system. Sure their internet points may be relevant only to their digital peers, but they are a powerful motivator so long as they derive some meaning from their boosted reputation.

Remembering that most-users don’t participate—and that they’re perfectly rational to do so—I’d love to hear why some of you do choose to get involved!


Huxley’s Nightmare: Twitch plays Pokemon

Famed science-fiction author Aldous Huxley dreamed a of dystopia in his novel Brave New World whereby the onslaught of trivial media had transformed the character of society into a burlesque. Years earlier, his grandfather—and noted evolutionary biologist—T.H Huxley had first supposed that a million monkeys on a million typewriters might one day collectively compose Shakespeare.

Neither Huxley could reasonably have anticipated that their speculations might converge and manifest themselves through the lens of Nintendo’s Pokemon franchise.

Source: imgur user Rhycool

In February 2014, a user identified as ‘twitchplayspokemon’ launched a channel on Twitch.tv—an online platform for live-streaming video games—running an emulated version of Pokemon Red, an 18 year old Gameboy game. Twitch.tv boasts a lively community of gaming enthusiasts streaming, watching, and interacting around a shared interest in playing and experiencing games. The community dynamics hinge on chat features embedded in the Twitch platform, and the interactions between streamers and viewers transforms typically solitary gaming pursuits into social experiences.

Twitch plays Pokemon takes this community interaction one step further, and by bootstrapping a chat-parsing bot onto the emulator viewers can input commands into the chat stream to dictate the inputs of the game. Typing in simple “up”, “down”, “left”, “right”, “A”, “B”, or “start” will feed the corresponding action into inputs for the game.  Predictably, thousands of people clamouring in chat and spitting out hundreds of commands simultaneously creates unmitigated chaos. The avatar gets stuck on terrain, he constantly flits between menu screens, spins around in circles, and ultimately behaves like a man possessed. Without pattern or purpose, the result is a bizarre mix of the trivial and captivating. For every hour spent in inaction and anarchy, brief flurries of cooperation incrementally nudge the game forward and demonstrate a complexity of collective action that verges on impossible.

This communal watch-and-play experience showcases some of the best and worst qualities of user-driven content; Web 2.0’s greatest strength also represents a terrible vulnerability, to aggregate the wisdom of the masses you have to invite their madness in too. The beating heart of Twitch.tv lies in its users coming together to share and interact, but their collective activity does little to build a community. Far from it, as TwitchplaysPokemon has demonstrated time and time again the contributions of the many are not necessarily helpful. In fact, the disruptive—often maliciously antagonistic—anarchy of the users creates something wholly unique and unanticipated from what should be relatively mundane, boring elements.

Source: imgur user Rhycool

Counterpoint to Tim O’Reilly’s position that harnessing collective intelligence has an effect liken to that of the sum being greater than the whole, the Twitch community thrives not on inclusiveness and cooperation like so many other Web 2.0 hubs, but rather on the toxic levels of animosity and trolling behaviour between users. The raw energy and interest that Twitch produces is not generating a collectively ‘intelligent’ behaviour across the sum of interactions. While there is something to be said for the collective joy of achieving the most basic goals when 100 000 voices are all arguing at once, the most compelling part of Twitch—the thing that binds the community together—is how devastatingly broken it all is.

After more than 2 weeks of continuous play, Pokemon was finally beaten. This is either an incredible feat of crowd-sourced collaboration, or a tacit endorsement that monkeys might well compose Shakespeare given time. If nothing else it opens the way for a new approach to how games and gaming are consumed and integrated on social platforms. The potential for participatory collaborations on Twitch need no longer be constrained to a simple viewer/streamer relationship. The possibilities for building a community—nay, a society—around even the most trivial of media, when experienced cooperatively, is limitless should Twitch—or other platforms—choose to leverage this position.

Looking forward, it certainly appears that Twitch plays Pokemon has ushered in a brave new world for Twitch.tv.