Monday, September 3, 2012

empower everyone: a new old paradigm for social software

Ok, enough of the in-the-trenches HTML5 audio gridning: lets talk about something a bit more abstract.

Recently I noticed a parallel in the solutions to problems faced by Google in their Hangouts app and by Apple with their AppleTV AirPlay photo sharing.

Google Hangouts is a group voice chat. That social technology often has a problem where one's person microphone is causing a problem for everyone else: either delay-echoing the main conversation, or making feedback, or having an on-device microphone amplify the typing sound of that person as they multitask during the chat, or some kind of intrusive background noise. Those sounds can be very disruptive to the group. But with Google Hangouts, everyone is empowered to mute anyone else. And they don't just mute that person for themselves, they mute that person for everyone!

If it ended there, a typical engineer might thing "That's censorship! How can that work? We should designate a conversation leader and only that person has such power!" But Google added two additional features that make it make sense: a public announcement of the muting is made on the Google Hangouts screen. ("Fred muted Barnie", for example). And a person who is muted is always empowered to unmute themselves. So while the potential for mute/unmute wars certainly exists, overall the experience makes sense.

I saw a similar problem and solution with AppleTV's AirPlay feature. We were over at our friend Sam's  house during our Labor Day vacation, and each of us had some pictures of the past few days on our iPhones that we'd like to show each other. The UI for this was breath-takingly simple in its "it just works" factor: in the iPhone photo app, hit the sharing button and then "AppleTV". And the rule is "last one in wins"; anyone can override what other people are looking at.  The stakes are pretty low, and anyone can replace what anyone else has beamed to the screen. Simplicity trumps authority!

But of course, there's nothing new under the sun, and this idea of empowering everyone has been around for a while. Here's an excerpt from Steven Levy's Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution   about the ITS (Incompatible Time-Sharing System), an OS for the PDP-6:
ITS, in contrast [to Multics where hackers would prove their mettle by crashing the robust system], had a command whose specific function was crashing the system. All you had to do was type KILL SYSTEM, and the PDP-6 would grind to a halt. The idea was to take all the fun away from crashing the system by making it trivial to do that. On rare occasions, some loser would look at the available commands and say, "Wonder what KILL does?" and bring the system down, but by and large ITS proveed that the best security was no security it all.
Now it's not clear that this type of communal empowerment is always appropriate... like Alfred Pennyworth says in The Dark Knight, "some men just want to watch the world burn" and so the community needs to be able to reject such griefers with the scorn they deserve.  Still, it's a powerful idea to keep in mind for community UX.


  1. My solution might be missing the point: but if you really like that kind of chat, why not get a better mc to plug into your device of choice? There are mics out there designed to pretty much focus where sound comes and block out background noise, isn't there?

  2. I don't know if those mics work well, and we don't have them for everybody...