For at least 1500 years, Japanese artists have practiced suminagashi, the art of marbling paper with ink floating on water. The marbler uses brushes to place alternating drops of black calligraphy ink and turpentine on the surface of a full basin, then lays a sheet of paper down to capture the resulting patterns. They look like clouds, or smoke, or the grain of twisted trees. Each pattern is unique, unlike in Western marbling, where the creator can reproduce essentially the same design many times.
Ink, turpentine, water, paper. It seems so simple.
And it is very simple, but only after you accept one thing: you are not in control of the outcome. The ink goes where it wills, and the marbler can only follow. There are tricks to give the pattern an overall direction, such as controlling the amount of ink and turpentine or gently blowing over the surface of the water. But the heart of suminagashi is trusting what you can’t predict or control.
I recently read George Oates’s essay about the ways that Flickr created its community: Community: From Little Things, Big Things Grow on A List Apart. Two particular paragraphs really jumped out at me:
Embrace the idea that people will warp and stretch your site in ways you can’t predict—they’ll surprise you with their creativity and make something wonderful with what you provide.
There’s no way to design all things for all people. When you’re dealing with The Masses, it’s best to try to facilitate behavior, rather than to predict it. Design, in this context, becomes more about showing what’s *possible* than showing what’s *there*.
Flickr’s history has proven her right. There are any number of wildly varying communities on the site, many of them either accidentally or deliberately experimental. Flickr groups are even cited as a case study in Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirkey’s recent book on online community dynamics.
And now it’s our turn.
The essence of My Discoveries is this: allow users to add information to the library catalog. Let them tag things, make lists of related items, fill in ratings, write reviews. Then let others see what they’ve done. Turn the patron’s interaction with the library’s catalog into a conversation with the catalog, and with each other.
I’ve been involved in both the design and testing. One of the core principles we’ve kept in mind throughout the process is that we cannot predict what people will do with it1. Designing and testing in the light of that kind of uncertainty is very different, and much more interesting, than working to a known, restricted usage profile. It affects everything we do, from what characters are allowed in list names to which statistics we want to gather. How does one design metrics to detect the unpredictable?
Tags, lists, ratings, reviews. It seems so simple.
- Of course, we are not so naive as to think that all the new ideas that people come up with for My Discoveries will be good ones. I moderate a web community in my spare time, so I know how bad things can get. As a result, I have put a lot of attention into the administrative interface—and I expect do more on it in the future. If we give users room to innovate, we have to give librarians the wherewithal to detect and clean up misbehavior.