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Things that didn't Work: Part 1

January 16, 2009 21:10

As part of this historic anniversary coverage, I'm going to discuss some things I tried or planned to try that didn't work properly or as intended, and hopefully why.

First, some thoughts on my project planning routine. In the past, I used to think of things all the time, and I would promptly tell everyone about it. Mostly I was looking for feedback, but it's nice to get a little motivating boost from people too. Some people think every idea you have is great, and others think every idea you have sucks. Very few people can actually offer any input on the idea beyond their superficial opinion. However, if I'm pursuing a project and talking about it frequently, it can have the unfortunate and unintended side effect of hyping something that might never actually come to pass. My own personal vaporware.

So long as I actually finished enough stuff in a timely manner, it wasn't a problem. However, as I got busy with things, especially the house, there came a point where it was enough just to keep the site running, and adding new toys and features just wasn't going to happen with any regularity. That didn't stop the flow of new and interesting ideas, but I found myself getting increasingly annoyed ... mostly with myself, as I would have all these great plans and I'd be accomplishing none of them. So I quit talking about the projects I was working on and my motivations and intentions for doing them. This also can have some unintended side effects.

The first example of something that didn't work as I had intended were the social maps. You'll notice this map on everyone's profile page, although most people only have a single dot. The idea is that you can establish links between yourself and another user on the site and define the nature of your relationship with that person. You define if you're related, or if you're friends, or merely aquaintances. My original intent for this project was, assuming I could amass a large enough database, would be that you could establish how you are connected to people you know online, if you only could link yourself via established offline relationships. For example, there are thousands of people on this site, and we all "know each other" to some degree or another online. However, I know fewer than a dozen people on this site that I actually met in real life as opposed to meeting them online.

Lets use a fictious example: 5 people on the site, named Bob, Mary, Greg, Joe, and Sue. All of them know of each other on the site. But in real life, Bob and Mary are friends. Mary and Greg are friends in real life, but Greg and Bob aren't aquainted. Greg knows Joe, and Joe and Sue are friends. Now, we want to know how Bob and Sue are linked. Obviously if you use the site as a common link, they know each other directly, but if you take away the site, how are they linked together. There'd be a 4 stage link from Bob to Mary to Greg to Joe and finally to Sue. I would then superimpose this social map over a geographical map and it would provide some interesting, if otherwise useless, visual effects to help establish the nature of our relationships with each other. Obviously, my goals were somewhat lofty in this regard, but that was my intention. People, however, decided to take it upon themselves to interpret things another way.

To avoid overcomplicating the issue, I referred to friends that had initially met each other in real life as "Real life friends". Friends who initially met each other online I referred to as "Online friends". Note that neither label implies that one type of friend is a "better" friend than the other. They aren't labeled as such to denote the quality of the friendship, as somehow "online" friends just arent' as good as "real life" friends. People are weird creatures when it comes to social matters though, and insisted that if they so much as met once, they're real life friends and got quite insulted that I would have the gall to imply otherwise. So instead of the useful map that clearly showed a online vs. offline relationship between people, I instead got a huge rubberband ball image where everyone is "best friends" with absolutely everyone else, despite the fact that wasn't the intended meaning anyway.

Of course, I may not have properly communicated my intent. I made the distinction between the options clear enough, but not WHY it was important. And sadly, there's the chance that people would aim to intentionally sabotage the results even if they were fully aware of the actual purpose, just because they want to sample a what-if world, applying spreadsheet mentality to the social relationships in their lives. Apparently, doing an end-run around human nature will require more deviousness on my part, or a simple acceptance of the fact that reality has little chance of making a strong impact in any experiment where people control the data or the outcome.

Of course, that is the problem with any new gadget. People will find ways to use it that you hadn't thought of or anticipated. Most of the time, such things are harmless, but sometimes they can damage or destroy what you were trying to create. It's an endless battle.

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