NPUC 2006: Power to the users: the new web

Each year IBM Almaden hosts the New Paradigms in Using Computers workshop. This year’s theme was Web 2.0, which in this case roughly meant the mix of community sites, blogs and wikis that make up the supposed “next wave” of the Net.

Below the cut are my notes on this year’s meeting. They’re still in rough form (and of course are just based on my own recollection and what I managed to type as I was listening), but please enjoy!

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Automation and Customization of the Rendered Web Pages
Rob Miller (User Interface Design Group, MIT CSAIL)

Dr. Miller talked about ChickenFoot, a Firefox extension that makes it (somewhat) easier for non-programmers to customize web pages they come to. The idea is to let people create a bookmark for things like “my latest bank statement,” or add a link on every Amazon book review page to the MIT library website’s listing for the given book.

Essentially it inserts extra Javascript into the webpage, and you can use the framework to write raw Javascript extensions, but their main contribution is in a few functions that let you specify things like click 'I feel lucky' button instead of having to see what that button is called internally by the page’s raw HTML code. They’re now working on a version that does full keyword spotting and highlights the buttons as you specify them.

There’s clearly a tension between web-page authors and users here, and authors might not want users modifying their webpages because it hurts their business model (like the Amazon example above), or because a customization is pounding their server (as a GreaseMonkey script did to GMail last year), or because bugs in customization get blamed on provider. To this Miller says we’ve been down this road before with ad blockers, frame around content and deep linking, and that content providers are fighting a losing battle here: those that fight their users will lose their users.

New Paradigms in Social Computing
Ross Mayfield (Socialtext)

My favorite talk of the bunch. Ross is the founder of Socialtext, which provides enterprises with a wiki and offers hosting services. One piece ofnews is that they just announced Socialtext Open, an open-source (MPL 1.1) version of their main software that’s identical to their non-big-enterprise version.

Here are a few key concepts and quotes; check out his slides for more details.

  • It’s not about the tools, it’s about the practices people develop for using the tools.

  • “Web 2.0 is made of people.” (yes, like Soylent Green.) All that matters is participation: how do you incent people to contribute?

  • One of his case studies (DrKW Wiki, an intranet for the investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort) had three inflection points of adoption that corresponded to additional features: single-sign-on to the wiki (from the same sign-on as the rest of the intranet, I presume), WYSIWYG editing of pages so non-techies could participate, and mobile access. Traffic to the wiki was greater than the rest of the intranet in just 6 months. CIO of DrKW: “For early adapters, email-volume on related projects is down 75%; meeting times have been whacked in half.”

  • “PDFs is where knowledge goes to die.”

  • Open Source (and Wikipedia in particular) is kept strong by the constant threat of the “Right To Fork.” At any time, anyone can copy the Wikipedia software and content and fork, and they’ve had to stay relevant to fight that off.

  • He’s now working with Dan Brickland on wikiCalc. Some questions he’s asking: What happens when a document is a cell and a cell is a document? And anyone can change a cell? And each one has an RSS feed? And they compute / interact with nearby cells in some way? Distributed?

  • Suggested reading: Why Do People Write for Wikipedia? Incentives to Contribute to Open-Content Publishing, by Andrea Forte and Amy Bruckman from Georgia Tech.

New Paradigms at Flickr
Stewart Butterfield (founder of Flickr)

Key points:

Photography used to be about memory preservation, now it’s about communication & connection.


  • Ubiquity of capture devices (and always with you, and no cost to capture)
  • Spread of the network (home, work, mobile)
  • Change in perceptions and attitudes — participating is no longer weird (e.g. online dating is no longer creepy).

People aren’t generating “content.” What they’re doing (and motivated by) is:

  • The creation and maintenance of relationships w/ other people
  • sharing, giving & contributing
  • pursuit of recognition & acknowledgment
  • pushing of their point of view / politics / ideas


  • Make things “massively multiplayer”
  • create an ecosystem, not just a distribution channel
  • content/media objects become the locus for interaction, rather than things which are passively “consumed”

Interesting statistic: about half their traffic is on their API rather than their webpage (about 10-12M API calls / day).

Teenagers on the Go
Sam Ruby (IBM, Atom, Apache Foundation,

Sam Ruby’s slides are fun and well worth the click-through (to get the real feel of the talk, be sure to go through them fast.) Here’s a quick summary:

His main predictions (based mostly on watching his two teenagers and generally being a bright guy):

  • Web and voice will be overshadowed by cellphones, and in particular texting (and maybe asynchronous voice-messaging).
  • Adults see the Web as important. Teens create ugly web pages. Teens see the Web as transient — like IM. Email is only for talking to parents and teachers, and the Web is rapidly heading this way. POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) will probably go that way too: a legacy technology for communicating with geezers who haven’t made the jump.

  • Limits on who will publish? Depends on your definition of “publish,” but probably only a few extroverts will publish globally. Most will publish things only readable by friends.

  • Future: ubiquitous access to the net. Free or flat fee (today: Skype to Skype is free). RSS, small chunks of text (blogging), more audio, video, IM integrated with community-ware (e.g. LJ-Jabber). All via cellphone. Desktops will be docking stations and used for offline editing.

  • Zero-cost publishing means the cost of failure is zero. Ready-aim-fire becomes Ready, Fire-Aim-fire-aim-fire-aim…

  • Who loses: Those that control the “last mile” (cable, phone land-lines).

  • Who wins: People with opinions (extroverts). People who are always online. Those that can deploy quickly, and update quickly. Perpetual beta. Those that collapse development and operations. Asynchronous, Open Source, VOIP. The half-life of concept to End-Of-Life is approaching 5 years.

(Avoiding) The Travesty of the Commons?
Tom Gruber (RealTravel,

The trouble with community-generated information: blog spam, “IP looting,” and marketplace for fake reviews. Many (most?) hotel managers have someone working non-stop to plant false reviews for his hotel on the various online review sites.

RealTravel is a web service that lets people post their travel logs, tips and reviews online. The idea is to offer more trustworthy information (and fuller information) because it’s tied to a full profile including pictures, maps of where someone went, travel logs, etc.

The hard part is motivating participation: why should I share my feedback & advice with strangers? Answer: Do it for your friends & family. With style (i.e. with tools to make the write-up look really professional). Add auto-generated maps, recommendations for hotels & restaurants, embedded photos, etc.

Principle of design: motivate through enlightened self-interest. Design services that reward individual behavior that has global benefit. Communicate the value proposition to people who would recognize that value.

Key Motivators (design these, and target audiences with these motivators):

  • entertainment value of participation
  • social connection
  • ego / ambition
  • altruism

Why should users do things that benefit the community? is the wrong question. Make doing the right thing low-friction. “Snap to grid,” e.g. have auto-complete of all the cities in the world, snap “diving” to the main-taxonomy tag “diving & snorkeling.”