joepie91's Ramblings

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The importance of user freedom and repurposing

12 Feb 2012

So, you've set up a web project of sorts. Let's say you've decided to build a social network, that is dedicated to posting messages of at most the size of a text message, and that it would be possible to 'subscribe' to other people, so you see all the things your favourite friends posted, all mixed together in one chronological list. Of course, your idea is to make it easier for people to tell others where they are, what they are doing, and how they are feeling.

Hmm, it appears a lot of users are using it to share news and other things that are not related to themselves. Others appear to be using it as RSS feeds for their website, again their messages have nothing to do with themselves. That's not what you intended. As a solution for this problem, you decide to make links not clickable anymore, so that people are less likely to share news messages. You also change the wording on the site to explicitly ask people what happened to them, and forbid users from posting things that are not related to themselves.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Yet, this is what many developers (or managers, if you are working in a corporate structure) do. They consider their own ideas and intentions to be the deciding factor for what happens with a website. It has to 'fit the business plan', 'fit the prototype', or any of the other things that originates from your favourite manager.

Twitter got this one right. When they found users spent their time on Twitter more and more on sharing news and informational bits, they actually changed the wording from "What are you doing?" to "What's happening?". In the new Twitter interface, the wording has become even more generic: "Compose new tweet". Twitter understood the concept of giving users freedom in using a platform, and letting them repurpose it if they wish to. Take a guess as to why Twitter is such a success.

The original idea when I made AnonNews, was for it to contain links to news articles from news websites, and let users rate them according to how accurate they were. The idea in showing the least popular articles was that users could go to these (inaccurate) articles, and then post corrections in the comments of that article - on that news website itself! - to let them know their article was inaccurate, and what exactly should be improved. This way Anons could 'teach' journalists about what Anonymous is, and call out those outlets that report inaccurately on purpose.

Quickly after the launch of the site, AnonNews users decided to use it differently. They would not only rate an article based on how accurate it was, but also based on whether they appreciated the subject, whether they agreed with opinions in it, and whether it was good or bad news. Reports of Anons being arrested would quickly be downvoted - despite the articles being entirely accurate - whereas reports of their release ended up at the top. Simply put, the users repurposed the website.

Now think for a second, and consider why you would try to put a halt to user repurposing. What logically valid reason is there to prevent users from deciding what to do with your platform? Of course, their decisions on how to use it could harm the platform and other users using it. But what if that is not the case? Why would you try to force users into using your platform in a certain way?

At this point in time there is no proper way for an 'average internet user' to tell a developer what he would like to see on the internet. There is no way to figure out what users REALLY want, except for questionable "market research" (and market research typically does not happen for non-commercial projects). That means that users have no choice but to take the existing platforms, and turn them into something they want. If a platform gets repurposed by users, that means you are not providing them the platform they want - so they've taken it into their own hands. It makes much more sense to either provide an alternative platform (if you believe the desires of users would harm your original platform), or leave your users the freedom to repurpose your platform however they want.

Very recently someone suggested to me to force AnonNews users to only rate articles based on the accuracy, as that was what the 'original idea' of the site was. Needless to say, I rejected that suggestion and decided to give my users the freedom to repurpose the site instead.