Thursday, March 10, 2011

Clay Shirky's Keynote Presentation

I loved Clay Shirky's keynote (see:
He reminded all of the web developers in the room that "the most valuable thing attached to a computer is the user" and covered the new "C's" in CMS (not just Content, but) Community, Convening, Culture. He believes that we're moving into Community Management Systems (vs. Content Management Systems) and, further, that these are evolving into cultural management systems. People who work in libraries, museum, and governmental agencies should be participating in movements like the open-source Drupal community, if for no other reason than that [my aside].
I know that there were those tweeting during the keynote about how this was just a rehash of the old Web2.0 paradigm that we've been hearing about for nearly a decade, but I think Shirky added some new pieces to the discussion and refocused the Drupalists on how we build our systems.
1. he challenged web developers' conception of the user
Shirky pointed out that we often develop for personas, as though people behave consistently - always good or bad, for example. He mentioned what psychologists term "the fundamental attribution error", wherein we see others' actions as though they are a distillation of everything about those people (so when they behave in destructive ways on some occasions, we imagine that they are always destructive) vs. seeing them, as we see ourselves, that is to say, behaving due to context and circumstances. (e.g., when I cut off that person in traffic, I was rushing to the hospital, but when someone else did, they were showing how selfish and narcissistic they were).
This does remind us that the use of "personas" - and our design for personas can actually have a negative flip side, in having us design systems for "people" who we imagine behave in certain ways all the time. The scenarios we put those personas in are more important. The context is crucial in figuring out how to build systems to work best for people. Which brought us to his second challenge:
2. he spoke about targeting behavior as a 1st-class object
As we build community systems, we have to build them to accommodate behaviors, not single-dimensional personas. We have to build systems that reinforce the behaviors we want and reduce the effects of behaviors we don't want. He used the example of and how, as the social bookmarking service was designed, there were debates over how it might be mis-used. Sure enough, many of the designers were concerned about the possibility of spammers bookmarking spam sites & gaming the system until those bookmarks were highlighted, reducing the value of the community tagging of sites. But they decided that as long as they built the system to not allow those spammy bookmarks to rise to the top, it didn't matter if spammers were using the service. If there's spam on the system, but none of the real community is affected by it, does it matter?
Through the social aspect of the bookmarking system, they actually leveraged the greater number of community members - who wanted to use the system legitimately - and used their collective input to highlight which tagged sites were valuable. In choosing this approach, they stopped themselves from designing onerous barriers to legitimate community members which they would've had to include if they were designing more heavily around the "spammers". Instead, they concentrated their efforts on a system that would enhance/highlight the legitimate behaviors of the many and reduce the effects of the illegitimate behavior of the few.
3. he talked about including users in redesigning the system as we go
This one isn't so revolutionary - you've heard it a million times nowadays. There's two parts of this statement: (1) that you include the community in building the system and (2) that you build iteratively. The bit that he added in that I personally hadn't thought of (in this way) before was about how you can't pre-design the system for the user. It's real-time use that shapes how you build. You'll never be able to fully anticipate how people are going to use what you provide, so instead of pre-designing for all of the edge cases, you need to design the system with community input and more importantly, design a system that easily enhanced/changed/redesigned in response to community demands.
Along the way, Shirky also pointed out some interesting things about organizations & organizational culture - that, for example, successful open-source movements are led by people who might be described as "benevolent dictators". In other words, they neither micromanage, nor are they simply charismatic visionaries, the leadership options we so often see in the corporate world. Instead, they are "roadblock clearers" whose commitment to the continuation of the community trumps the disputes that inevitably arise when there are so many impassioned developers involved.
He spoke about Linux's creator Linus Torvalds, who, at one point did source control by having community members send their work zipped via email to him and he redistributed it via email. He did so until he could find a technical solution that "fit" the linux community's culture. So he cleared the roadblock, kept things going until he ultimately resolved the dispute with a technology that fit into their community practices.
He also said that in such impassioned communities, what worked best was for the communities to have a space to "take it to a room" for debates, without affecting the development of the project overall. So online spaces for such communications are crucial infrastructure for open-source movements.
He pointed out the difference between what's been called "single-loop organizations" and "double-loop organizations". The former, he said, fix problems; double-loop organizations, however, fix problems and the situations that cause the problem.
He didn't say that the open source movement was definitely going to survive and persist and that it would all work out. Instead, he said that the people at DrupalCon (and active in other open source communities) represent "the experimental wing of political science".
I think that the endless feedback loop of the community with its resulting "continuous, iterative improvement", the participation of believers who are most impassioned about the project (along with the space for other folks, who may be less involved, but whose contributions may nonetheless be helpful) will ensure the continued success of the amazingly powerful, open-source Drupal project. I think Dries, and so many others who've gotten involved, are correct to emphasize the community aspect of their work.
Being here, right now, with the Drupal community, gives me a lot of hope about the future.

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