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Imitation of life

February 22nd, 2012 Posted by Chris View Comments

Nothing brings tears of joy to a developer’s eyes like his baby being compared to some of the most interesting projects out there. Recently, the Italian version of Wired wrote an article comparing the features of Italian Volunia with some other star-ups, that pursue the direction of innovative social interactions. As a result, we ended up on the same list as Trap!t, WhoIsLive, Chime.in and some major old social platforms, like Twitter and Facebook. It’s always nice to be noticed.

Volunia’s launch made me think it’s strange how many new systems try to discover some kind of new, involving interaction that could happen in the web. That’s probably because real Internet users showed us they are ready to do more and share more. They want to get involved in new kinds of activities.

Just take a look at this study and see what happened, when Facebook allowed third parties to publish information about user actions on FB timelines. People suddenly found sites like Pinterest, Yahoo! News, and even old and tired MySpace more exciting, as soon as they were able to telegraph what they do there to FB friends in real time.

So the big question is: who will finally put the pieces together in the right way and satisfy this need? What is the “winning combination” and what will it look like?

Taking a look at the others

Out of curiosity, I checked Volunia out, and noticed one funny thing. One of their features offered a visual map of the web, that showed subdomains and subpages of a website as houses, mapping the page structure like a real city.

It seemed funny, because at some point we also thought about giving users a visual map of the web, and we wanted to present our Open Web Layer as something you can travel through, using page relation as your roads. But in the end, we thought the result would be quite gimmicky, and wouldn’t provide our users with enough unique information to justify the feature.

We were afraid to end up with something similar to Yoowalk. Check it out if you haven’t seen it before. A great concept, that will amuse you for five minutes, and then (most likely) you will never come back. Why Yoowalk creators put so much work into recreating Web as an actual city?

Probably because for many years developers thought that in order to make a system easy and obvious to new users, it has to be modeled on something from the real world. For example, when creating calendar applications, some people thought they need to imitate real notebooks, sometimes even down to a horrible faux-leather cover (I’m looking at you, iCal).

Of course, imitating real items and shapes is not always the best way to lay your system out. If you want a proof, just take a look at infamous Microsoft Bob. Presenting your computer as a physical room didn’t help users at all, it only served to annoy them and clutter the screen. Another example would be the music controls of Cockpit for Mac, that simply wasted a lot of screen space only to look like a real iPod.

As you can see, it’s not only about taste, it’s also about efficiency, and sometimes also about usability, as realistic interfaces can be misleading. Just take a look at this article – there is a whole new concept of Uncanny Valley of UI’s. Some designs are so realistic they become confusing.

Of course, I’m not only talking about graphical interfaces. Sometimes the whole concept of the system can be based on something from real life, just like a first version of Facebook was heavily inspired by physical university facebooks. Or how corkboard.me was designed to imitate your trusty old corkboard.

Why do we try to build so many parallels between real life and abstract realm of computer software and information? Is it even necessary?

The story of nativity

According to writer Marc Prensky,  most of us come from a generation of digital immigrants. It basically means the modern web developed during our lifetime, it is a place we migrated to, discovering its potential. But people aged 20 and younger are not like that at all. They are digital natives, they’ve spent their whole lives here.

“Hey, let’s do a digital version of our college facebook” is a digital immigrant’s idea, just like “Hey, let’s make something like a classifieds section of a newspaper, only this one will be online”. Or “Hey, let’s make an online auction hall”. “Hey, let’s make a place for online video rentals”.

You get the picture.

The thing is, recreating items, ideas and interactions from the physical realm already ran its course. We moved everything we could from the real life to the digital world. But where are the systems created for digital natives from grounds up?

Maybe the real solution is to go in an entirely different direction than Yoowalk? Should we cut off our ties with the real world, and stop providing straggling digital immigrants with crutches?

I believe so. And there are proofs to support that.

When small mobile devices started to become common, one of the problems people faced was typing e-mails and text messages on a touchscreen. The solution that everyone went for in the beginning was to use virtual QWERTY keyboards. But they just didn’t work very well on 4-inch screens, even with the help of auto-correct. That’s when some clever guys thought “What if we designed a keyboard made specifically for mobile users, that does not try to replicate the full 104-key desktop thing”. The result was called MessageEase, and guess what – it kicks ass. If you haven’t tried it, just take a look here.

Yes’ it will never be as popular as a run-of-the-mill virtual keyboard, because you have to learn how to use it from the scratch. But it is better and more efficient in every other sense.

It shows us, that rethinking the basics is sometimes the best things we can do.

A shift to abstract

As you probably know, several weeks ago, we decided to ditch “Friends” and “Following” lists from StormDriver.

We knew that some people are really accustomed to see a “Friends” list in every social system, because that’s simply what Facebook has. The thing is, the idea of Facebook is based on something that exists in the physical world, namely a university facebook. StormDriver, on the other hand, was created to allow for new activities in the Web. It has no parallels in the real world.

Besides, for most people on earth, Facebook is already a place where you keep your real-life friends, and it will be next to impossible to wrestle this functionality away from them.

But is being friends the only  reason to add someone to your list? Twitter proved that you might also be interested in folks you haven’t met, who produce good updates. That’s because in the digital age we all like good, reliable sources of entertaining stuff.

It pushed us to rethink our basics, and to go one step further. We realized, that in the Internet, websites generate updates just like real humans do. When you write about your test, a website publishes a new article.  And that’s how our new Sources concept came to be. We know it’s much better suited to our system than a simple friends lists derived from the real world.

We believe we came a long way from fake desktops, notebooks with leather bindings, and software that emulates real-world concepts. It’s time to move on, rethink the basics, shift to abstract, and build new systems from grounds up.

It’s time to embrace digital natives and give them something cool, that doesn’t try to imitate existing concepts.

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