Defining the landscape of user interaction

As I work in my living room day after day, I find the analogy between writing a website and writing a novel jumping out at me. I’m constantly tinkering with things until they feel just right. Writing and re-writing. Asking friends and family for feedback. Tweaking. Starting over. Trying to keep an eye on the big picture. Fighting to make sure that all the little details are just right.

Like an enticing first paragraph in a novel, a website needs to hook you. Like the scenery of a novel, a website needs a consistent look and feel. And, just as the characters in a novel interact with one another, a website in today’s world needs to allow for interesting, useful interactions between its users.

It is in the definition of the allowable interactions that I find myself devoting the most time and energy. How can my users connect with one another? How can they share and improve one another’s experience?

A great book gets better as you read on. Its characters gain depth. It teaches you something. A great social website gets more useful the more you and others use it. You learn the ins and outs. You get to know the familiar characters. They help you and you help them.

In order for all that to happen, the site needs to have the right foundation. The right set of available interactions. The right blend of rules and flexibility.

In a good novel, the characters do things that make sense in the world within which they have been set. When they act otherwise, it feels wrong and out of place.

Imagine a book where the characters had free will and were only bound by the world they were placed in. If that world wasn’t described in quite the right way, those characters might behave badly. Worst of all, they might become boring and uninterested in one another. They might all sit in their apartments and watch tv by themselves. That would make for a pretty awful book. We, as readers, want our characters to talk to each other, to love one another, to get in fights, to teach each other. We want them to care.

I want my site to have users like that. Users that care. To make that happen, I need to provide those users with the right environment. I need to create the right incentives and benefits for interaction.

The success of a social website does not depend on technical ability or on the size and impressiveness of a feature set. It depends on the landscape of interaction. Get that right and you’re on your way. Get it wrong and you’re in the deadpool.

It’s not easy. I’m nervous.

Notes:

#1 – It might sound like I’m talking about making a site that’s full of rules about who you can talk to and when and how. That’s not it. It’s about giving people the right channels to connect. Like letting users create groups on Flickr, or letting them write on the wall on Facebook. Stuff like that. Which ones are most beneficial? Which ones lead to negative behavior? Which ones do you draw attention to? Which ones can remain hidden secrets for the initiated?
#2 – Luckily, unlike with a novel, I don’t have to get it all right on day one. My site can evolve along with the ever-changing community.
#3 – Wouldn’t it be cool if you could write to the author of your favorite novel and ask them to change something? And then they did. Actually, someone should make a site where authors can do this and publish different versions of the same story, influenced by the requests of readers. That would be cool.

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