Playgroups

Consider this the naïve how-do-earthlings-work question it feels like (inorite) but: if you’re a project-oriented person doing projects, how do you find your team/​karass/​clique/​playgroup to playwork with?

I’ve had a few treehouse chats with smart people I’d like to work with on internet projects but I haven’t figured out how to actually start doing anything with any of them.

I don’t expect people to be interested in my ideas. It seems rude to ask, since people have their own projects and things. Selling someone on my unformed idea enough to pitch in free work seems impossible anyway. Probably I would be served to learn how to do that, in spite of the programmer complex that things like design documents or fanciful descriptive blog posts that a computer can’t execute feel wasted.

Contrariwise the few times conversations work up to a project of the group’s design, no one actually starts anything. Partly that’s individual busy-ness as above, but I also wonder if it’s the lack of someone in an “activation energy” role to record decisions and manage consensus. (On the other hand, some groups I recall couldn’t reach consensus if our lives depended. They would also roll their eyes at my saying we need a “product manager”. Maybe it’s for the best.)

There’s an argument that companies are economically efficient, and consequently continue to exist, because they amortize the cost of forming these groups between and along longer-lived projects. Am I imagining these groups form outside of companies? Maybe people who want to do projects like this just start their own (even somewhere besides San Francisco).

Life-saving apps

Suppose you run a city and need to provide the people with 911 service for coordinating emergency response. Is a 911 system “an app”?

That’s a tangled ball of implicit understanding I can’t really sort out, but let’s have a try.

Maybe that sounds like a terrible question on the face of it. Perhaps I want to blow the crazy particular situation I’ve wandered into into generalized significance. (It doesn’t involve a 911 system exactly, but it seems comparable to me.)

“An app” in this question is what a lot of people might call modern software. It’s a user experience for a computing device. Mainly, now, that means software that runs on an internet server. Usually it’s a web site, usually it’s a “cloud” web service, and if it’s not a web site it’s a mobile app, and then it probably uses a web service.

These apps are largely made by small teams who don’t know what exactly they’re making, and so use agile production techniques (probably not Agile, or any methodology with a name) to experimentally discover simultaneously what problem they’re solving and how they’re solving it. The app is often paired with the startup, as they are deeply reflective of each other. As described in the best (as far as I can tell) startup how-to book, Steve Blank & Bob Dorf’s Startup Owner’s Manual, a startup is an experiment to discover a profitable business model, just as an agile project is an experiment to discover a process, concretized in software.

The web and mobile app are far from the only type of software written today. Games, for example, are probably singular in any way you can examine them. Apps ape games in a lot of ways – such as trying to absorb ludic trappings to motivate the user experience, or “gamification” – but the sorts of web things we see startups developing are most game-like in their entertaining superfluity. As Ian Bogost put in this pre-UXweek interview:

…increasingly, the things that need user experience design are also excessive. They don’t need to exist. They invent new kinds of activities that we can choose to do, and they are all a kind of entertainment.

Therefore we can understand “is a 911 system an app?” to ask, “can a 911 system be developed by the same people and processes a startup would use to make a common web app?”

I apologize for bringing you all this way when the clearly implied answer is no. I have the question at all because someone seems determined to try to build (the equivalent of) a 911 system with a startup team, either through ambitious optimism or having not examined the question at all.

As part of the team who would have to build it, it worries me someone at risk of death would depend on our fucked-up shit software.

At school the canonical hard software engineering project was the space shuttle. In the software-eats-world view, a spacecraft is a modestly networked computer system that a group of people fly to space in. It has to work: it’s an interface that makes fault-tolerant an environment that tolerates no faults. It’s a mission-critical system attached to an actual mission.

The term “software engineer” deserves derision (and I try never to use it) because these are the only systems that can hope to wear the engineering mantle. To call what app people do “engineering” is an insult to the entwined design of hardware and software to meet rigorous physical requirements that “software engineering” should mean.

As “apps” are essentially entertainment software, they are subject to much different tolerances, dictated by the market and squishy ol’ people rather than unyielding physical laws. They can be discovered experimentally, developed in concert with a business model. It would be irresponsible to try to build life-saving infrastructure the same way.

That I’ve finely honed skills for making entertainment software is a looming consequence of this argument, but that’s a different issue to consider.

Web feeds

With social networks ascendant, the market for software to have your own blog has cooled off completely. Why bother when you can Facebook or Tumblr or Twitter (even through the 140 character straw)? There are two camps that want for something new in that niche.

The writer

While networks like Twitter have swallowed up a lot of casual bloggers, some people still like to write. They are served largely by tools stripped down to basics, such as the generation of tools publishing Markdown from Dropbox to static pages. These are the writers spoken to by such as Anil Dash’s preferred blog features. (I call out his since it’s his thread making me write this.)

The self-faciliating media nodes and their publishing businesses has driven the growth of blog engines into empire-supporting CMSes, but the writing subset of them is also the group most like to backlash against cookie cutter heavy-duty WordPress sites. The upper end of the writer market is also served by the new subcompact magazine and writing experience tools (such as Editorially, which I’m writing this with). I’m not sure a blogging system needs to compete in this space, but the input end of it should at least compare.

The free socializer

Some folks don’t compose their thoughts as a free internet magazine. They trade photos, image memes and YouTube links with their friends, often in treehouse chat rooms. Many of these folks shared themselves with groups in a private register on Blogspots and LiveJournals. In my Facebook-free experience the lion’s share of this energy has gone to Tumblr, supporting fandoms sharing gifs in the same way that LiveJournal encoded the early ethos of a web writing community.

However this group has lost a core axiom of the waning blog community, which is that a space controlled by you, the writer, is valuable. In The Future of the Internet (And How to Stop It), Jonathan Zittrain speaks to a “generative” principle of tinkerable systems, where freedom at the endpoints (for instance, to modify blog software however you like) breeds new uses.

This is the raison d’être of the hosted social silo. From a purely mechanical point of view, software run on your behalf in the cloud is not tinkerable. Further, this is largely the sort of creativity people speak against Twitter for eliminating, when they limit API developers’ ability to refine twitteringness to create a supply of promoted tweets for advertisers.

A common thread

These two groups are different but are connected in an important way. Namely they are connected, among and between themselves.

The carrier of connection for the blog era was web feeds, a technology you could call humble but for all the politics and ultimately constructive human drama that resulted in podcasts and so many news fans caring deeply about Google Reader. This is the existing system that the writers who are news fans depend on for distribution and community. They supplement their reading with the same systems the socializers use: the social networks, serving as carrier waves for links to articles, YouTube videos, and image macros (and in the case of Tumblr the occasional diegetic text post).

It should be clear to us as tool builders that web feeds could still tie these groups together. The technology is perfectly adequate, and latency and polling load can be addressed with recent developments in push feeds. With push feeds, the new publishing apps we’re writing can weave independently operated sites together into a world wide web again.