just a dude abiding

on fire and forget online services

I’d intended this post to be a yet another glorious rant against twitter, but as I was gathering my thoughts on how I wanted to put it together I realized the issues I had with twitter are found in plenty of non-twitter sites. The problem really starts with my uncontrollable laziness. If a site requires me to continually visit it, just to stay on top of the goings on of the service, then I’ll inevitably end up ignoring it, as any of my friends (in the non-social network sense) can attest. The “solution” to this, is what I call a Fire and Forget service. I set it up, start using it, but even if I don’t come back for six months, I don’t have to deal with any extra tasks punishing me for being away. Facebook is a great example, that I’m fairly familiar with, at failing miserably at this so let’s break it down a bit.

To write this post I logged into facebook for the first time in I don’t know how long. What I find upon logging in is a “News Feed” full of every minute detail of everyone on my list’s life. There’s so much data there I immediately ignore it. I then am told I have 6 friend requests, 7 green patch requests, and 15 other requests. I only know for sure what one of those three categories means. So I’ll check out my friend requests. Turns out that clicking on friends requests just puts it at the top of the list of nearly 30 miscellaneous requests for me to check out. At a glance there is only one friends requests I care about, so I accept it. Now I want to ignore the rest of the mess on my screen. The only solution? Clicking each one of the ignore boxes individually until they’re all gone, no select-all, nothing but individual actions. I can select all in my email, in my RSS feeds, hell in my news groups, but not on facebook. Now I realize that the reason this problem even occurs is due to the fact that it’s been months since I last logged in. But so what? Just because I choose to use the service infrequently, does not mean I should be punished with performing various forms of “account maintenance” when I do decide to log in.

Now one could argue that facebook provides email notifications to keep this problem in check. You don’t have to log in all the time, just when they notify you about something requiring your attention. Which sounds great, until that friend of yours goes on a picture tagging spree, and you get a dozen emails about all the pictures you now appear in. To combat this issue you can opt out of those notifications.  After a quick look of my personal notification settings, I’m given the option of disabling 37 separate notification options. Again without a select-all type option, I would have to click through each one and disable it. I can setup a spam to block facebook faster than that (and conveniently already have).

When you signup for a facebook account facebook puts the burden on you, the user, to keep the service running, and under control. By simply accepting a few friends to your facebook account, you implicitly agree to carry the burden of keeping facebook from overwhelming you.

So there’s my small rant about how things are all wrong, and how I know so much better. But I haven’t really provided any concrete examples of the way things can be better. So let’s walk through some key ideas of Fire and Forget services.
  • Users are lazy, and already approaching information overload
  • Make defaults for user contact opt-in, not opt-out
  • Hide old, and possibly irrelevant data
  • Allow digest style notifications
  • Whenever reasonable, add select all/none options
  • Make complete account removal simple
  • Don’t burden the user
  • Allow things to auto-expire
This list is not inclusive, and has the implied caveat of “whenever applicable and reasonable” to every item.  The idea is to let the service run itself, I want to set it up (Fire) and not have to manage it daily (Forget).  The key is letting me spend my time using the service not managing the service.  It’s a simple list of things that will make your services more friendly to your less frequent users, without inconveniencing your constant users.  Everything on this list could be implemented almost universally.  Even twitter, the poster child for information overload, could handle almost all of these options, which is proven by the considerable number of third-party twitter add-ons offering a large majority of these features.  

Consider it a list of things to keep in mind when you’re developing a new service to keep people like me happier.  If your service followed these suggestions I might even use your new application that will revolutionize and harmonize my social experiences with friends, family, and co-workers.  But probably not.