Autocatalysis is the last of the four themes comprising Conversation (the first concept of the Ontology Of Participation). Shared conversations become the fuel for further conversations, initiating a self-replicating process that ensures the preservation of the activity.
This idea of autocatalysis comes from biology, but is an interesting application in the context of participation. Stuart Kauffman explains it from a biological perspective:
In comparison, conversations with a product (artifact, service, system, environment) can grow to a point that they self-replicate, initiating a community.
For instance, Smart Mobs (similar to Flash Mobs, which I talked about in a previous post) exist when individuals gather in a specific place, typically a political rally or protest, and utilize mobile technology to coordinate efforts. When conflict arises during these events, individuals can use their mobile phones to share information about the movement of authorities to avoid capture. The situation in which these events occur, in combination with the available technology and the mindset of the people present, serve as catalysts for the Smart Mob behavior. The coexistence of all of these factors causes the behavior to replicate itself to the point that the actions of the technologically linked mob take on a life of its own, almost becoming a living organism.
[WTO protests 10 (Battle of Seattle) from djbones on flickr] For example, consider the Smart Mob example in Howard Rheingold's book by the same name. In 1999, demonstrators protesting the World Trade Organization (WTO), used mobile phones, text messaging, and websites to elude authorities in what came to be known as the "Battle of Seattle." According to the report Black Flag Over Seattle, by Paul de Armond (via Smart Mobs, 2003, by Howard Rheingold — page 161):
The report further states:
As you can see in this example, the coordinated efforts of the demonstrators led to a Smart Mob that fed on itself, taking on a life of it's own.
Force is the third of the four themes comprising Conversation (the first concept of the Ontology Of Participation). The force of Conversation happens when an increasing number of people involved in adaptive behaviors exert a force that may trigger a community (the primordial goo of adaptive enterprises).
For example, the introduction of blogging software enabled motivated individuals to share their thoughts with large audiences without any expertise in formatting content for publication on the web (previously a requirement). Content was easily produced, which ignited a trend and brought greater quantities of people into the activity. Like-minded bloggers soon connected with one another via comments on each others posts, trackback links, and the blogroll. Eventually, bloggers convened in the real world at blogger-specific conferences (BloggerCon, BlogHer, Wine Bloggers, etc.). Not only was the convergence of bloggers inevitable, but a tension with mainstream media emerged (e.g., Rathergate). While a battle between traditional and participative media wages on, the lines between the two are just beginning to blur. Today, 'the media' is enamored with tools like Facebook (see Rick Sanchez of CNN) and Twitter (as usual, the Daily Show nails it) as well as implementing their own (NYTimes blogs, CNN iReports).
[Apple Newton from brianmadden.com by Brian Madden] One of the most fascinating examples centers on an Apple product, but not one you might think. It's actually the Apple Newton (Apple's mid 1990s PDA). While the Newton was shelved in the late 90s, a small but vibrant group of individuals kept using the device. As support from the manufacturer dwindled, users began servicing the device on their own. Eventually, a community formed: enter NewtonTalk. This community has kept the Newton alive for nearly a decade. They've kept third party applications working, created replacement hardware components, and even developed an emulation that enables the Newton Operating system to run on different devices. I'll post more on NewtonTalk later as an example of Hard Hacking & Soft Hacking.
Expectation is the next of the four themes comprising Conversation (the first concept of the Ontology Of Participation). Certain functional qualities of a product allow for it to be used in a familiar way, but to achieve an unexpected outcome (the intended use of some products is broad enough to allow for flexibility in its use).
For instance, communication technology (telephone) has permeated our lives for several decades now. Its purpose is to allow us to communicate with people we know, or intend to know. The emergence of mobile phone technology has sparked fascinating behaviors in many societies. Specifically, I'm referring to the Flash Mob. I talked about this previously when I described Group Assembly. Individuals participating in FlashMobs utilize communication technologies the way they are intended — to communicate with other people — but what's different here is that the technology is used to communicate with people they don't know. It's this use that is unexpected.
[Macy's "love rug" Flash Mob in 2003 from Satan's Laundromat by Mike] For example, one of the first flash mobs occurred at a Macy's in Manhattan in June of 2003. The crowd was coordinated using text messages, email, and blogs. The expectation for using text messages and email is to communicate with people you know, but in this case the communication occurred among strangers (unexpected). Nearly 100 people gathered around a $10,000 rug. If asked by a store employee if they needed assistance, were instructed to say they all lived together in a 'free-love commune' and were looking to purchase a 'love rug' but they always shopped together as a group (see this great article on Flash Mobs, Flash! Mobs in the Age of Mobile Connectivity, by Judith A. Nicholson).
Again, this is an example of using a product (mobile phone and email) in an expected way (communication) to achieve an unexpected outcome (coordinate strangers to gather and act in a coordinated way).
Intention is the first of four themes comprising Conversation (the first concept of the Ontology Of Participation). During the design and creation of a product, certain considerations are made that influence its final outcome. Some are specifically related to the product itself (interface affordances, shapes of buttons, functionality, outcomes of a service, etc.), some are the enterprise's needs (cost break even, profit, governance, competitive advantage, etc.), and others processes from which the product is realized (ethnographic research findings, identified customer needs, flexibility of materials or technologies used, etc.). These considerations make up the characteristics of the product and define how it will be used once in the hands of the customer. As products (or services, systems, environments) are designed to solve problems, satisfy needs, or encourage behaviors, designers embody within the form of the product the intention for its use.
For example, consider the Apple iPod. (Note: I acknowledge that Apple examples can get tired. That being said, I'm using Apple here for two reasons. First, because I originally used this example back in 2003 before Apple examples were tired. Second, Apple is always an example because they get so many things right. Going forward, I'll do my best to use fewer Apple examples.)
[First Generation iPod from Engadget via iPod Republic]The first iPod was meant to be an MP3 digital music player. Songs were to be downloaded only from a Macintosh computer and the player would serve as a portable device to listen to music. While the original functionality was simple, its goals were also simple: store and play digital music. That's it. (Obviously, today's iPod is much more robust, but the first iPods were far more simple. Check out this history of iPod and iTunes functionality.) Of course, aesthetics and other sub-cultural attributes (i.e., die-hard Mac fans) play a significant role in how products are treated. It's all of these attributes that likely acted as a key motivator for individuals to choose the iPod as the hub for participative behavior on the part of the early adoopters.
From a functional standpoint, alternative uses were not Apple’s intention. Shortly after its release, some owners began to analyze how the device worked at the software level and envisioned other uses it might serve. Individually, people began to create their own applications for the device, such as a tool for synchronizing the iPod with a computer running Microsoft Windows. EphPod was one of the first applications launched that provided this functionality by tricking the iPod into thinking it was connected to a Macintosh mounted drive. Native Windows connectivity wouldn't come to the iPod until almost a year later (using Yahoo! MusicMatch) and a Windows version of iTunes wouldn't come until a year and a half after the original launch. The adapting enterprises brought the desired functionality long before Apple (originating enterprise).
The specific functionality that Apple planned to offer for the iPod was not initially clear. Regardless, nothing in their public placement and branding indicated that the iPod was to be used in this way. The adopters of this product took it upon themselves to enhance its functionality.
The possibilities of the first iPod, coupled with its aesthetics and cultural heritage, fostered intention for its owners to push its functionality into new design spaces.
The first concept of the Ontology Of Participation is Conversation: Individuals interact with things in a more meaningful way — they have a conversation with products — extending them beyond the utility for which they were created and into new design spaces.
Conversation with a product occurs when an individual uses it in a manner inconsistent with the specifications intended by the originating enterprise. Rather than the product being a completed part of the world, the world is becoming part of the product. As meaningful participation with the product begins, the conversation leads to the realization of new possibilities. And as a person’s interaction with the product breeches its predefined role in utility, it takes on human-like characteristics, almost exhibiting a life of its own. The interaction becomes more sophisticated, much like face-to-face communication. Conversation is the starting point of the adapting enterprise — many people may be engaged in conversation with a product, but those individuals haven't combined forces yet.
The following themes describe the characteristics of the conversational aspects of this elevated interaction.
[Conversation from Adoption, Participation, And The Propagation Of Design Continuities by Brian Haven]Intention: The functional characteristics and brand identity embodied in a product define how it will be used.
I'll break these themes down with examples over the next several days.
Members of adapting enterprises pursue engaging and meaningful interactions that embody a special kind of participation. As the behaviors of these communities continue to emerge and become more common, their impact on products, and on the design practice itself, will be significant. It’s critical for both the originating enterprises and the design discipline to be aware of the people who will engage in these activities. Both need to understand the underlying concepts that explain how this kind of participation exists in the world. To help open the discussion and facilitate further understanding of the behaviors of adapting enterprises, I’ve broken things down into a set of concepts that explain how participation happens — an ontology of participation. This ontology is based on my masters thesis at Carnegie Mellon completed back in 2004. So far, I feel this framework still applies, even though I created it back when blogs, social networks and other forms of social media were in their infancy.
It’s based on analysis of the examples outlined in previous posts (hard-hacking & soft-hacking, group assembly, self-declaration, and systematic engagement). They address issues beyond the mere creation of products by an originating enterprise. Instead, they address the creative activities exerted on products that extend them beyond the utility for which they were originally created. Additionally, this ontology also addresses the creation of entirely new products by non-commercial entities. (Note: Please remember that when I refer to a 'product' I mean that it can be an artifact, service, system, environment, etc., it's not limited to a physical object.)
The five ontological concepts of participation are:
The fourth example of participation, systematic engagement, is supported by a platform designed to act as an organized system that accommodates or even encourages adaptive behaviors. This platform is comprised of a set of fundamental guiding principles established and structured to enable an individual to engage in creating or modifying a product. It allows for these types of changes to occur without the need for the time, money, or intellectual application typically required to develop a product by an originating enterprise. Platforms are the most sophisticated method for enabling the systematic engagement that has initiated the recent shift in the making process.
The OpenSource software development movement is the best example of systematic engagement involving modern technology. OpenSource is the creation of a base framework for an operating system or software application.
[The Linux Mascot from file-extensions.org] This framework is freely distributed to the public for the express purpose that other individuals develop enhancements and integrate them back into the source — anyone can write code for the application, and that code is available to anyone else to modify or enhance. Additionally, these software developers contribute to a larger community through collaboration in online discussion forums. This activity is unique because the majority of commercial software applications are under the centralized control of an originating enterprise and can only be developed by in-house employees.
OpenSource is an excellent example of systematic engagement because it blurs the lines between the adapting enterprise and the originating enterprise. One could argue that the success of several OpenSource initiatives, such as Linux and Firefox (Mozilla Project), are excellent examples of adapting enterprises undergoing a metamorphosis into originating enterprises. These are early signs of a possible shift to a platform-based approach to develop products for commercial endeavors. Some larger institutions, namely the tech industry, show the early signs of embracing this movement (such as IBM). But for most, the thought of placing a product entirely in the hands of its constituents is nauseating.
Until recently, the systems and media available for published self-expression have been reserved for professionals like writers and broadcasters. This chasm between the average person and the professional existed because of the significant costs involved with production and distribution. In the past several years, personal technology has enabled non-professional individuals to begin to bypass traditional outlets and to make their own self-declarations — the third example of participation.
In the early 1990s, a few individuals began creating frequent journal-like posts (in reverse chronological order) on websites that they called Web Logs. After several years, the behavior spread and the tools to publish became easier to use and more prevalent. Linking to posts by other bloggers became essential to the process.
The blog was born.
While several weblogs have existed since the early days of the World Wide Web, the real boom was ushered in with the creation of Blogger by Pyra Labs in late 1999.
[Graffiti on boxcar from traingeek.com by Steve Boyko] Blogger was, and still is, a very popular tool that allowed the mainstream public to publish their thoughts on the web on a recurring basis. One of the many characteristics of blogging software that contributed to its growth was its automation of web-publishing capabilities placed in the hands of non-experts. It didn’t require its users to code HTML, but rather provided pre-designed web page templates. It also automated the process of managing files and uploading them to a web server. Google’s acquisition of Blogger in 2003 helped legitimize the technology and spread the behavior. Today there are many tools that enable this self-declaration, from blogging tools like Movable Type (and TypePad), Word Press, and Tumblr to services likeFacebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube.
The idea of self-declaration is not limited to digital technology, nor is it new. Graffiti is one example of public self-expression that has been present in our society for a very long time. These behaviors and principles are universally understood. These are rich cultures with traditions and rituals. Their expression is the adaptation of a medium (spray paint symbols and artwork on public buildings) that was not intended for this use. Additionally, the actions of the adapting enterprise, in this case graffiti artists, are covert and underground because their efforts are considered artistic by few and criminal by most.
The second example of participation is group assembly. Group assembly involves ad-hoc gatherings or coordinated actions by groups of people using technology originally intended to enable one-on-one communication with known individuals (such as text messaging or conversations on mobile phones). However, when the members of adapting enterprises use these technologies, the participants in the group often do not know each other. While this alternative use of technology is not explicitly impossible or prohibited by the originating enterprise, it is certainly unexpected. The motivations for such activities vary from entertainment and performance art to political protest.
When I originally did this research for my thesis work at CMU back in 2002-2003, flash mobs were just emerging. For those not familiar, a flash mob is a gathering of individuals coordinated online using technological tools such as email, mobile phones, or bulletin boards (back in the day).
[Pillow Fight Club from boston.com by Boston Globe] They agree to suddenly assemble at a specific location for a short period of time, typically just a few minutes, and then disperse immediately. Usually, there is an assigned task, like asking a humorous question of an employee or purchasing a random item at a store where the flash mob is occurring. I thought that flash mobs would be the quintessential example of group assembly, but then it mostly died out. Other than the occasional pillow fight, I guess I was wrong. That being said, other forms of group assembly did emerge — meet ups and social networks.
Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs was on to this phenomenon early on:
Channeling the past’s masters of public pranks and ad hoc performance art like Merry Pranksters, Suicide Club, or Cacophony Society, whether or not flash mobs will regain popularity remains to be seen. The emergence, and recent dominance, of social networks like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter lend credence to the importance of group assembly. These tools mostly enable group assembly online, but the participants can be considered adapting enterprises. Social Networks utilize technology to enable behaviors that weren’t previously possible — connect, communicate, and collaborate with with a massive number of individuals. As I’ve said before, the core behaviors are part of human existence but the scale at which these action can occur is entirely new.
The power of these tools and behaviors is evident in the recent political protests in Iran. A culture once silenced and controlled by its own government is now
[Mousavi Protester from boston.com by Damir Sagolj/ Reuters] using Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to circumvent censorship and exert political force on its leaders. This is group assembly on a mass scale.
Services like Meetup facilitate physical interactions that were born online. As you can see, these new interactions are made possible by adapting enterprises (the creators of Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and MeetUp) as well as the members of these communities) were neither possible just a short time ago nor were they ever successfully enabled by originating enterprises.
In my previous post, I described the phenomenon of participatory culture and how institutions are no longer in control (see Making With People). There are several examples of how this participation manifests itself in the world, and the first examples I’d like to talk about are hard-hacking and soft-hacking.
Hard-hacking is the tangible sibling to soft-hacking, which I’ll describe in a moment. Hard-hacking occurs when a person makes modifications to a physical object after it has been introduced into the world. It involves altering the physical nature of an artifact to add, enhance, or change the intended functionality of that product. Hard-hacking also occurs in a lesser form when a person obtains a hack created by another individual and applies it to their artifact — they weren’t the original hacker, but they imposed the change made by someone else. In either instance, they changed a product in a way that wasn’t intended by the original designer, stepping beyond the complacent consumption likely desired by the originating enterprise.
[Slammed Civic from corey m stover on flickr] For example, sub-cultures surrounding the modification of cars and motorcycles is rich with examples of functional enhancements to products and the social interactions that accompany these cultures. The hard-hacking of motorcycles, such as the Harley-Davidson, consists of ‘chopping’ up the bike — giving birth to the term Chopper — to alter both its performance and aesthetic. Similar behaviors exist among some young Asian-Americans in Southern California’s import car racing culture where members make performance and aesthetic modifications to import automobiles, developing rich social communities around their activities. Formerly, AOL chat groups existed for groups like the O.C. Racerz and Import Scene (see Victoria Namkung’s fantastic chapter, “Reinventing The Wheel: Import Car Racing in Southern California” in the book “Asian American Youth” by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou).
Soft-hacking, on the other hand, involves the modification of digital objects after they’ve been introduced into the world. Modifications can include the writing or alteration of software as well as reforming digital images or video. Like hard-hacking, some people exhibit a lesser, yet still important form of soft-hacking. This occurs when a person doesn’t create their own soft-hack, but instead acquires someone else’s for their own personal use. In both instances, people are making changes to a product that wasn’t intended by the original designer.
[Original iPod from “Using An Original iPod In A Smart Car” at bioneural.net by Bruce McKenzie] For example, the early days of Apple’s iPod were inundated with soft-hacking. The device was originally intended only to store and play music files, but savvy owners of the product quickly discovered the alternative uses it afforded. People created their own software to extend the capabilities of the device in ways Apple had not, originally, intended. Many software applications existed (and still exist) that enable file and music transfers from the iPod to other iPods and computers that don’t use iTunes. This is not how Apple intended it’s product to be used, but these tools have been around since the iPod’s introduction. More recently, people have “jailbroken” Apple iPhones to use on carrier networks other than AT&T. A vibrant community exists at iPodHacks where these activities are tracked and announced to interested parties.
It’s important to note that the social communities that surround these activities are as interesting as the hacking behaviors themselves. It enables the individuals with common interest to share thoughts, ideas, and their passion for the activity. It also supports the addition of new members as well as the propagation of the activity.