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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Human Nature, Technology and Online Communities

8:36 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , No comments
There are many things I have learned in my life. One of the most important amongst them is that, in general, people are good. I have argued with many, had strong disagreements, got pissed off with many and pissed many off myself. But that has mostly happened because the other person believed as strongly in his or her opinion as I did in mine. I have rarely met people that are genuinely bad. You would have noticed that too. In general, people are helpful and would like to do something outside their work that is good and can contribute towards the betterment of society. There are examples of this all around. People do social work, volunteer for things, attend and arrange meet-ups, and offer to help for any problem that you are stuck in. Even a small thing as picking up a toffee wrapper from the road and throwing it in the dustbin counts. This maps to the human nature of doing things outside our daily routine and trying to contribute to the society even in a small way if possible. We might not do such things all the time, but when we do, we do so because we feel good about ourselves after that. And if we get acknowledged for it, that's cherry on top. 

This human trait of giving back to the community has played a key role in the field of technology. The whole open source revolution has been driven by it. People taking out time from their regular jobs, trying to make a difference in the world in their own little ways. The proliferation of internet has added a nice spin to it and empowered the common [non-technical] people to use technology to contribute and make a difference. Wikipedia is probably the best example here. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people add or update articles on Wikipedia everyday. They do not get any monetary benefits out of it. They do so because they feel good about themselves in helping others learn. The fact that their written words will be read by millions all over the world is definitely a factor. For good or bad reasons Wikipedia is a non-profit venture and its founder does not seem interested in improving the user experience of website or building up on the huge community. 

On the other hand, StackOverflow, a Q&A site for techies, has done a tremendous job in building the community. It has added many features over a period of time that have incentivized and empowered the community to curate the content. One of the most useful feature in building this strong community has been the points system where programmers get points for answering questions. The more questions you answer and the more ratings you get from other techies, the more points you get. As you gather more points you gather more privileges and power on the site. StackOverflow has become so effective that programmers have now even started to quote their StackOverflow points on their CVs. Vimeo is another site that has developed a strong community. Vimeo is like YouTube but without the crappy and useless videos. The site has tried to instill a strong sense of community amongst its users. Vimeo users understand that the quality of content is important and that they need to upload only good quality videos on the site. This ideology has led Vimeo to become a preferred choice of artists for sharing videos. There are many similar online applications that have been successful in building strong communities. 

While we are seeing many community driven applications nowadays, there is nothing new about such internet applications. These have been around for years in the form of discussion groups. I think Yahoo Groups is probably the earliest and biggest example of this kind. We have certainly come a long way from the days of those ugly and clunky discussion groups. I believe there are three major factors behind this surge of online communities. 

  • Advancements in technology - Advancements in technology, especially on the client side, have tremendously helped increase the user participation. The current web is much more alive, less ugly and intimidating than its predecessor - thanks to the improvements in client side technologies like browsers, javascript, CSS and HTML. These technologies have helped make the user interaction much more fluid. Advancements in server side technologies have also helped companies in crunching all the data entered by users (such as profile information, status updates or messages) and use that to improve the product quality.
  • Increase in the importance of user experience - The world has finally acknowledged the importance and benefits of improving user experience, thanks largely to Steve Jobs. There is a tremendous amount of academic and professional effort put in understanding users and improving product designs. A lot of new online applications are coming up with simple and intuitive interfaces, to provide users with smooth and hassle-free experience. The advancements in technology have played a major role in improving the user experience. 
  • Elements of gamification - Many community-based online apps are using gaming concepts such as points and badges to incentivize users for contributing more. Quora, StackOverflow, Oink and FourSquare are some of the examples. Acknowledging people for their participation is a very important factor for forming online communities. These gaming concepts acknowledge participants for their contributions and tap into human psyche in order to make the community more active. 

Technology when combined with good aspects of human nature can help improve the quality of life in simple and effective ways. Fields of education and entertainment have benefited a lot from this synthesis, and yet we have probably only scratched the surface of possibilities. Technology's ability to build communities and bring people together has got a new boost in recent times and things are only going to get better from here.


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