California "Vote by Mail" ballots (formerly "Absentee ballots") have a terrible user interface misfeature that has possibly robbed untold thousands of voters their franchise.
To vote for a particular candidate or "Yes"/"No" choice on a proposition, you are instructed to:
Connect the arrow pointing to your candidate and measure choices.
Use one thin line to complete the arrow.
DO NOT sign or initial your official ballot.
PLEASE USE BLACK or BLUE color ink only!
Do not use permanent markers.
The instructions are accompanied by this image:
This is how I have been filling in my ballots:
So, it turns out, have several of my coworkers, including one of our founders, who, calling herself "a good Catholic girl", decided to call the county registrar of voters to find out if her ballot, filled out like mine, would be valid, given that the instructions say "Use one thin line to complete the arrow."
The woman at the registrar told her that, in fact, our solidly-filled-in arrows would not count, and that new ballots would need to be ordered!
This is an example of an extraordinarily poor user interface, as far as I can tell, and it may have cost me every vote I've cast in this county since I declared myself a permanent mail voter years ago.
I understand the concern of the registrar: people do all sorts of bizarre things when they fill out forms. I'm sure that people don't complete their arrows with the nice, solid block of black as I showed on the real ballot above, but some sort of bizarre scrawl that the scanners used to read the ballot can't possibly read.
Still, you'd think that a single solid line like the one above would count.
This is a long and slightly rambling piece on a couple of ideas: The deep similarity between the seemingly-opposed terms "radical" and "fundamental", some thoughts on why "radicals" are really surprisingly "fundamental", and how thinking about all of this could help us make better communities and community software.
I'm going to use a Christian book I'm reading as a backdrop to all of this, but don't freak out: this is not intended to proselytize anybody to my beliefs, except my beliefs about making an excellent social software user experience.
I'm reading a book, "Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations" that begins with a chapter on Radical Hospitality. I'm leery of writers who toss around words like "radical". All too often, the writer could have chosen just about any word to serve as an intensifier, and settled on something like "radical" because it's the first one that came to his mind.
I was delighted to discover that is not the case in this fine book: author Robert Schnase not only understands that the word "radical" literally means "from the roots", meaning "from the very orgin", but uses the word "radical" to amplify "hospitality" in ways that show that he considered a number of the word's meanings:
Schnase writes that the kind of hospitality that a thriving church will exhibit must arise "from the roots": in a Christian church, that would be Jesus, who always pointed further back to his roots: his father Jehovah. Christian hospitality should be rooted in the extraordinary acceptance, forgiveness and sacrifice that the church finds in Christ.
If a Buddhist church adopted Schnase's model, it would find its origin in the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama. The idea is that a church's hospitality cannot be a technique aimed at achieving a particular outcome (larger membership, for example), but must authentically stem from the spiritual roots that nourish the church itself.
He also draws on the sense of the word "radical" that springs to most people's minds: extreme, thoroughgoing, favoring drastic reformation. The kind of hospitality that he calls "radical" will be extraordinarily generous and thougtful. It will dramatically transform both those who practice it, perhaps undoing some of the damage from years of churches living the stereotype of condemning, critical behavior, and those who experience it, "converting" hesitant visitors into long-time friends and members.
"Radical" also means inherent in a person or thing. Schnase's version of radical hospitality isn't "grafted on", but blossoms from natural (perhaps even supernatural) qualities of a church.
As I wrote the above, another word kept trying to push its way forward and onto the screen: fundamental. I could just as easily have written "Shnase's … hospitality … blossoms from fundamental qualities of the church.
I find myself embracing the word "radical" while keeping "fundamental" at bay. Unfortunately, "fundamentalists" (Christian, Muslim, Constitutional or otherwise) tend to be reactionary. They seem to believe that there was a "golden era" when things were right to which we need to return from today, when things are wrong.
But I remind myself that they're just words: they're not the uses to which they've been put (though I'm equally prepared to be convinced that words are precisely and only the uses to which they are put: perhaps that's a subject for a future blog entry).
"Radical" and "fundamental" are not so far apart. They're both "down to earth" words, literally: "Radical" = roots (think "radish"). "Fundamental" = foundation. (I've lived in a part of the country where roots can destroy a foundation, so maybe radical and fundamental actually are at odds with each other….)
In fact, see if you can guess which of the following is a dictionary definition for "radical":
Being an original or primary source.
Forming a basis or foundation.
It's not the one you might have guessed: the one that mentions "foundation" is a definition for "radical".
The word "fundamentalism", applied to a religious movement, seems to have originated in 1920, to describe conservative Baptists who wanted to "to restate, reaffirm, and reemphasize the fundamentals of our New Testament faith." Frankly, with that description, I don't see much to argue with. If I'm going to call myself a Christian, don't I want to get in touch with the foundation of my faith?
Now comes "radicalism", with which I first became acquainted through an older brother who protested the American war in Viet Nam. Maybe because I am a word nerd who has long remembered (and cared) that "radical" relates to roots, but I believed that what the '60s radicals wanted was to "restate, reaffirm and reemphasize the roots of our nation", to borrow a phrase.
Few remember that an important part of the Hippie "uniform" was an American flag. I suspect that a good deal of this was because the Hippie "uniform" was often a well-worn US Army or Marine uniform, possibly one's own, earned during a tour of duty in Viet Nam. I also think that the most serious thinkers in the movement believed — as many of us across the political spectrum continue to do today — that we've lost touch with the values on which our country was founded, the roots from which we sprung.
The most serious radicals were — and are — "American Fundamentalists" who wanted to recapture the revolutionary spirit that gave birth to our country. We are a nation born in opposition to the corruption of power. The '60s was a resurgence of our founding passion for turning things over, for shaking things up, for "speaking truth to power".
What's this got to do with Social Media, Dave?
Like any technology company with a mature product, we have to consider radical or fundamental changes to keep ahead of the competition. Maybe Schnase's book, and its thoughtful use of the word "radical" — or whatever set of neural circuits it was that connected "radical" with "fundamental" in my brain — rose in prominence in my thinking because I am in the middle of considering radical/fundamental changes to our product.
Our clients, we hope, do the same as they renew their contracts with us.
What, underneath it all, is a particular online community for? What are its roots? What is its foundation? Why does it even exist? How — and why — should we try to grow it? Whom does it serve? What is its benefit to us? To the members? To the society around it?
Those are exactly the questions that my local church, Wesley United Methodist in San Jose's Japantown, are asking right now, and why it is that I'm reading Schnase's book. We're not an online community (well, not only, but you will find a lot of us on Facebook), we're a real-world community. Our roots are in the Japanese-American immigrant experience: the church was founded in 1895, when Japantown itself was only a teenager.
Those are also the questions that I'm asking about all those 100,000s of lines of code that make up our product. As we re-form it, we get a chance to think about what it is.
It started out as online-forum software. Its roots are in hierarchically-organized categories, subcategories, forums, threads and messages. A lot of what I don't especially love about the way our product works, under the hood, is that it the code still bears a lot of the marks of its origin.
So I look at how can we completely — fundamentally, radically — re-think what our product is. What is an online community? Is it forums and threads and messages and attachments and videos? Not so much, really. Those are things that people share with each other, but is that what the community is?
Maybe Shnase's book will help. The "Five Practices" that he believes are central to a fruitful congregation are these:
Intentional FAITH DEVELOPMENT
Risk-Taking MISSION & SERVICE
Obviously, those terms are deeply tied to the book's focus on church development, not software development or community management, but they could be applied to community or software development if we reword them a little:
A good user experience is inviting, helps you feel comfortable, and is deeply tied to the fundamental purpose of the software. It's not enough that the user interface "get out of your way", but should go out of it's way to encourage you to become more engaged with the community.
A great church pours its heart out during its gatherings: you feel the loving relationship that the people have with their God. A great online community feels pretty awesome, too: when you show up, you sense that the people really care about each other and the community's reason for being. Great social software creates a place where you can express that passion. It not only facilitates engagement with the functions of the community, it seems to anticipate how you might engage next, which draws you deeper into relationship with the community.
Churches exist to foster development of faith and relationships between its members and between members and God. An online community should be as intentional about its purpose as a healthy church is about its purpose. The platform that supports it (and the people who develop it) must be similarly committed to its purpose, and its developers need to invest the effort to understand its purpose.
Risk-Taking MISSION & SERVICE
No community is an island: it exists in relationship with the real world around it. It doesn't exist just for itself. It can empower its members to get out and do something in the real world, too. The risk-taking aspect calls us out of our comfort zone: whether that's building and maintaining an online community even if the ROI is not clear at the start, or making the effort to make a product with an outstanding user experience.
An excellent community platform doesn't just serve itself: It listens and contributes to the world around it. Facebook and Twitter integration and RSS import capabilities will grow into rich inbound and outbound syndication to makes the community a contributing citizen of the online world.
Great churches and their members are unusually generous, making significant effort taking unusual pains to lift others out of their difficulties.
An online community — or its host — can go beyond the original scope of the community for the benefit of others. Clients can extend special features of their communities — such as the ability for each member to have a free blog or photo album, video library or LiveWorld Groups "mini-community" in order to show generosity to their visitors and members. Social software developers can attend closely to the needs of guest visitors and members, thoughtfully anticipating their needs, and making certain that the product readily and easily fulfills it.
These ideas are not especially "radical" in the sense of extreme or drastic, but "radical" and "fundamental" in the sense of arising from the source — the human need to connect and communicate and to coordinate to make things happen.
I'm listening to a KQED-FM Forum program spurred by recent telecommunications announcements, including Google's "gPhone", Apple's iPhone and Verizon's pledge to "open its network" in 2008. Much of the discussion revolves around the different ways American and European carriers package their offerings, especially, the carriers' practice of subsidizing handset purchases in exchange for "locking" the handset to the carrier (and having features of the handsets disabled by the carrier).
Rewind about 10 years. I'm working @ Apple IS&T as manager of Web Services, and I need to buy a couple of big Sun servers for www.apple.com. I head on over to www.sun.com and try to find some servers. I'm thinking that I'll be able to shop for some basic server boxes, and expect to find a range of offerings that I can configure with the appropriate amount of CPUs and memory and discs.
Instead, I find branded bundles: "Netra" packages and workstation packages: but no bare-bones boxes that I can configure as I want. And certainly no info about how to "size" the configuration to Apple's needs based on millions of web requests per month or megabytes per hour or whatever. I can buy a bundle or I can go to hell, apparently.
I end up hiring a consultant to size it and configure it and buy it for me. Maybe this was Sun's plan all along...
Both the locked-in state of mobile phone selling in the States & my experience with Sun are examples of the curse of "Solutions Selling".
Apple has taken this practice to new heights with the iPhone. You get the applications that Apple decides you get, unless you want to unlock your phone and give up on all future software upgrades at the risk of having your phone "bricked" by an Apple upgrade aimed at stopping you from doing what you want with your property.