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Ridiculously Easy Group Forming

Tantek Celik is a software development lead at Microsoft Corp. Joi Ito founded Neoteny, a venture capital firm focused on personal communication technologies. Pete Kaminski iniated the Social Software Alliance and serves as CTO for SocialText. Sam Ruby is a 21-year veteran of IBM and works as an open-source software consultant. And Adam Weinroth founded Easyjournal.

Tantek Celik is a software development lead at Microsoft Corp. Joi Ito founded Neoteny, a venture capital firm focused on personal communication technologies. Pete Kaminski iniated the Social Software Alliance and serves as CTO for SocialText. Sam Ruby is a 21-year veteran of IBM and works as an open-source software consultant. And Adam Weinroth founded Easyjournal.

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The SXSW Interactive panelists explored how to quickly form groups and teams using social software tools. The panel also discussed what happens when team members are allowed to quickly and easily contribute content to various projects. What follows is a partial discussion of the panel.

Peter Kaminsky: Welcome to an example of ridiculously easy group forming. I wanted to give a quick overview of ridiculously easy group forming. The Internet enables a relatively new thing, group forming. We’re defining groups loosely as a number of people who get together persistently. That doesn’t mean it’s persistent over the years. A group of people might be defined by common interest. Working with groups, you might also find people that just like to hang out together. What we mean by group forming is a way for the members themselves to decide what to do together to bring each other into a group. Interesting things happen when that becomes ridiculously easy. You don’t even think of doing it, you just do it.

An easy example is Reply All in email. EBay Options is another example. The Internet makes it really easy for people to form groups and create groups over and over. Then there’s Metcalfe’s Law. Even if there isn’t any value in a particular group, there’s a number of other possible groups. Once we start organizing groups, there’s an explosion in option value.

Sam Ruby: A very simple example of group forming is an IRC log. I am probably best known here for the Weblog groups. You can pull content into Weblogs and create connectivity. Trackback is another way that can be done. It’s easy for interactions to happen because of those links. People can get together who don’t know each other. Weblogs are changing things because it’s not just publishing only.

Kaminski: With blogs, we’re used to people pouring out their souls, but now the blogs are talking to one another?

Ruby: I go out to pull stuff in. Technorati can collect those links, or I can check my referral logs.

Joi Ito: I have Technorati set up so every time someone links to me, I get a message on my cell phone. I have IRC and instant messaging on here. One of the differences is that the speed of Weblogs has increased to almost match the speed of email. You get the speed of instant messenger on Weblogs. Then you have that mobile aspect to it, you add chat room functions to it. The group becomes active as you get this blob of stuff. Japanese researchers call this the full-time intimate community. This is usually four or five people. Most blogs only have five links. They’re people you’re always in touch with, and it’s more about presence than it is about content.

Kaminski: That sounds like a dream still. That sounds hard.

Ito: Americans always think about cyberspace and the real world as two separate spaces. When you’re mobile, you’re always on the network. When I get the Technorati pings, I check their inbounds to judge reputation.

Kaminski: You see intimacy. Do you see group forming?

Ito: In a chat channel, most of the content is just carrier signal — people sending signals of what state their in. Good morning, I need a bath. A lot of people collaborate just for the sake of collaborating. Not that there’s a point but that they’re togetehr and it feels good.

Adam Weinroth: I have more of a business and marketing background. I want to focus on the ridiculously easy part. Making things ridiculously isn’t contained just in the software itself but extends into the messaging and the marketing. When AOL rolled out its AOL Journals, they didn’t use the word blog because people didn’t know what the word blog meant. They used journal. You need to make people aware of these technologies.

In Easyjournal, we have things contained a little bit separately. We’re going to open up to the blogosphere in the future, but right now everything is mostly contained. We have 90,000 registered users, and one of the things people like is the ability to form journal networks. We have another thing called the network digest, which is a quick read of everything by everyone who’s in my network.

Tantek Celik: I’m not going to talk about things from a business model perspective. I’m going to talk about something a group of us did just for fun. I’m going to talk less about group forming and more about ridiculously easy. Easy means more people can do it, coders write more tools, we get more tools sooner, it’s democratic, and it’s for the rest of us. If you make it simple, it gets accomplished faster.

How do you do easy? Keep it simple. Start ridiculously simple. Solve one problem. Pick a piece of the problem. Solve that piece. Blogs and blogrolls are forming groups already. People are already linking to each other. We just need to add some relationship information. The thing we called XHTML Friends Network — XFN — was actually conceived here at South by Southwest last year.

In three months, hundreds of users are already using this. There are thousands of nodes. There are blogging tools that do this. We started ridiculously simple, almost too simple. It’s kind of like the problem of inviting people to a wedding. You don’t want to introduce someone as an acquaintance when they think that they’re your friend.

Weinroth: Is there an enemy subtype behind that?

Celik: We decided to socially engineer it to eliminate all negative relationship types. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. Do you have more faith in people on the Web doing good things or bad things? We believe the good will win out.

Ito: There’s research done by a Japanese professor about reputation. [Here’s a related paper. HR]

Weinroth: I think it should be self-policing. If you make it so easy that people are around all the time, then you have 24-hour monitoring come into play.

Ito: In my chat channel, we have cliches. We have certain words and timing that have a lot of queues we associate with real life. They’re not codified. And they change. Each group has their own style — and is different.

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