Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Squaring Space

I've been thinking a lot about the interfaces of the future. Not just the hardware, but the actual visuals involved. One reason I'm so interested is because there is a symbiotic relationship between what we think we want to do and what we can do with our current systems. It is hard to "jump" forward, because it is hard to see around the corner.

I'd like to talk about a few potential uses for very different interfaces. I cannot think of any way to do these interactions on our current linear (sometimes fractured- or multi-linear, but always linear) interfaces. All of these require some kind of new interface format. I'd like to talk about several, but I want the post to be less large than a book, so I'll stick to just one.

The one example is "the open conversation". This is the idea that you want to talk about a given topic. For example, you want to talk about green power. Specifically, you want to talk about the best setup for a solar power system.

In all the current methods of having an open conversation, you have two problems. One is getting the conversation started: nobody will hear you unless you've already got a pack of people listening to you, and even then, it's not likely that pack of people are solar power experts. Topic watch lists can help, but they aren't a very good solution.

The other problem is derailment. Your talk of solar power will get infested by other topics, eventually spiraling into a grand mess where Fox meme-bots argue that there is no global warming and nobody should ever use solar power. Even without them, you'll be pulled into all sorts of random, off-topic chatter.

The "open conversation" of the future needs to allow for both drift and on-topic conversing at the same time.

One possible way to do this is to have the posts in a kind of "starfield" arrangement instead of this linear vertical system we normally use. When you make a new post, you can link it to an existing post by simply dragging a line between the two. Similarly, you can link any post to any other post simply by dragging a line between them (and you may "label" this line with a post, so curious people can highlight the line and see why you've linked them).

Linked posts stay larger, longer, while less linked posts rapidly shrink away. However, links are not universal. They are inherited by degrees of separation. You get the links your friends can see at half strength. So this means that if your friend makes a link, you see it at half-strength, and your friends see it at a quarter strength. If someone is following both you and him, they see it at 75% strength (or similar) because they see it from both you and him. Some care needs to be taken to avoid recursive link-strength calculations, but it's really not that hard. Links can become extremely strong, well over 100%. Individual posts can also be upranked and downranked, which is also shared and affects their size.

A very basic physics system pulls the linked posts into a loose formation, where you can clearly see that they are clustered, but they're not so overlapped you can't highlight one and expand it. Fresh posts and links are the biggest and most obvious, so you won't overlook new commentary... but their size is relative to the importance of the posts they link to. So downrank the "root" node of the conversation and you're officially ignoring the whole thing. There may be some "bleed" if other links fold back into the parts of the conversation you're interested in, but it is small and easily ignored.

So if someone starts a long chain of global warming denialism, just downrank the root node and continue with your conversation.

At first glance, this doesn't seem very significant. It seems like it's a lot more maintenance than Twitter requires. But it's actually not as much maintenance as you think - it's basically a very, very fast way to reply, retweet, or create links. Not everyone bothers to link every tweet - quite the opposite. Usually it's only the original poster that will link the tweet, or perhaps their followers if they think the tweet is relevant to something else. Also, of course, these are not "tweets", they are posts, and can be any size and contain any kind of media.

How does this system solve the two problems of current methods of open conversation?

Well, first, the ability to link your post to an existing galaxy of posts allows you to ask your question and link it to a similar post. Anyone who thinks that sort of thing is interesting or was involved in the previous conversation will see your tweet standing out of the background radiation, because they have that conversation ranked pretty high (automatically, due to link-creating). The system will, of course, put your tweet in some kind of "possibly interesting" category for them: they won't have to hunt and peck through the galaxy of tweets to try to find the new sparkles.

This is a method to automatically contact the people who are most likely to be able to help you, without knowing who they are, without having to bother them explicitly.

It solves the derailing problem by allowing for very complex threading - if people want to talk about some random side issue, they can. Over there. It doesn't derail your thread, so you can still have the conversation you want.

There are a fair number of usability questions. For example, on a normal screen, it would be fairly hard to really display the "galaxy" of tweets and smoothly figure out where what is. There are a few solutions to this, my favorite of which is using not-so-normal screens. However, even with normal screens it should be possible to do a "clustering" system where tightly linked posts are considered "a post" at the top level. As you zoom out further, whole conversations might be condensed to "a post", and you can simply link to the whole conversation rather than an individual post. This has some drawbacks, but can be used even on a normal screen. Smart phone screens are probably too small, period, but they could leverage your follows and preferences to give you some added capabilities.

Anyway, I really want to talk about some other possibilities, but this is already plenty long.


patchworkZombie said...

so when people spam and link to several important posts so that more people view their spam how is that handled?

Craig Perko said...

Karma system. Flag it as spam or mislinked, and their posts lose weight.