small pieces, loosely joined

November 20, 2008

In my previous post, I suggested that “grand narrative” doesn’t work very well in a blog.

In many respects, I think the narrative (un)structure of a successful blog is very much like the (un)structure which characterizes many of the most successful “social web” applications. (Un)structure can avoid the economic problem of massive up-front design and investment for a limited and ill-defined (because it is emergent) userbase. Clay Shirky calls this Permanet versus Nearlynet and uses the example of wireless services:

In any given situation, the builders of permanet and nearlynet both intend to give the customers what they want, but since what customers want is good cheap service, it is usually impossible to get there right away. Permanet and nearlynet are alternate strategies for evolving over time.

The permanet strategy is to start with a service that is good but expensive, and to make it cheaper. The nearlynet strategy is to start with a service that is lousy but cheap, and to make it better. The permanet strategy assumes that quality is the key driver of a new service, and permanet has the advantage of being good at every iteration. Nearlynet assumes that cheapness is the essential characteristic, and that users will forgo quality for a sufficient break in price.

In “Situated Software”, Shirky describes the power of incremental “small pieces, loosely joined” (i.e. the nearlynet strategy) for social software applications. It’s important to note that this design concept extends to both the social and the software aspects of the application:

Situated software isn’t a technological strategy so much as an attitude about closeness of fit between software and its group of users, and a refusal to embrace scale, generality or completeness as unqualified virtues. Seen in this light, the obsession with personalization of Web School software is an apology for the obvious truth — most web applications are impersonal by design, as they are built for a generic user. Allowing the user to customize the interface of a Web site might make it more useful, but it doesn’t make it any more personal than the ATM putting your name on the screen while it spits out your money.

Situated software, by contrast, doesn’t need to be personalized — it is personal from its inception.

And by the way, in my use of un-structure (rather than my first choice of non-structure) I mean that, to paraphrase Dave on unorder “un-structure implies the possibility of an [emergent] structure we do not fully understand”.

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