This morning at DrupalCon 2011, Clay Shirky gave a keynote discussing the increasingly social aspect of the Internet, and what this means for how we look at content and content management.

Today's Challenges

The theme of Shirky's talk revolved around a quote from Mark Smith, Research Sociologist at Microsoft, who said that the history of civilization could be summed up in seven words: "More people, pooling resources, in new ways." But he feels that this phrase also describes our future, with a constantly growing collection of ways for people to come together online for common purposes and interests.

There are three major challenges for those who want to incorporate such features into their own projects:

  • Our concepts of the user and the audience
  • Targeting behavior as a first-class object
  • Involving users in the continual redesign of the system

Answering Those Challenges

Design for Type of Users

In the case of users and audience, Shirky says that we need to learn to design for types of users rather than users as a single entity. In particular, we need to stop giving everyone the same interface and abilities. A power user, someone who spends much more time doing things on the site and contributing to it, might want a much richer experience than someone who might contribute just a bit, who will want something simpler.

Yet designing for users is an over-simplification. On the next level, he talked about behaviors, pointing to the concept of The Fundamental Attribution Error in social psychology. People are highly contextual. We tend toward snap judgments of others after a few observations, but we judge ourselves in a much more nuanced fashion. For example, someone cuts you off and you curse them out for being a jerk, but then later you cut someone off and justify to yourself that you had no choice because you almost missed your exit.

Design for Behaviors

We can use this when creating sites. Yes, we should design for levels of users, but Shirky feels that ultimately we need to design for behaviors. And that in part means structuring things in a way that there are incentives for good behavior, saying that people will behave well when the incentives to do so outweigh the incentives not to.

For example, the founder of eBay initially felt that people were basically trustworthy in transactions, but within 90 days of launch the place was a hotbed of scammers. Adding the reputation system provided the necessary incentive for many to be better (though of course some still cause problems).

Learning Opportunities

Shirky also discussed using behavior to deal with things like spam, saying that you shouldn't just design for the behaviors you want. Also, design for the behaviors you don't want. The Delicious social bookmarking site ignores spam entirely rather than having sophisticated methods for handling it, because the only people interested in the spam are the spammers. They focused instead on a great user experience. Designing the site to highlight content that the most people bookmarked caused the spam to fall to the bottom, even when the spammers were using multiple accounts -- though this method mainly works when there are large numbers of users.

Involve Users in the Redesign

Finally, there's the issue of involving users in redesign. Here Shirky discussed Single Loop Organizations and Double Loop Organizations. In a Single Loop, the organizations fix problems when they appear. But in a Double Loop, the organizations both fix problems and what caused the problems. Here he refers to the folks behind the Area 51 Q&A forums. They have a section called the Stack Exchange where members can propose new sections for the site. There, the users discuss the proposed sections, decide if they're worthwhile or just duplicate something somewhere else, and so on. Only the proposals that survive actually become sections.

In the meantime, they're all generating karma through various kinds of participation and quality. When they reach a large amount of karma, they automatically gain access to moderator functionality for the site. But adding a technological reputation system works best with large groups. Otherwise, he points out that there's always a reputation system at play, sometimes it's just living in the user's brain as they make decisions about people through interactions.

The C in CMS

So, while the C in CMS stands for Content, more and more it also stands for Community, Convening and Culture. Content lives in context with the collaborative interactions around it, and how we manage that will ultimately decide how well our projects fare.