Treat your site like a hyper-local, self-sustainable, fertile permaculture.
In my previous post on Sustainable Garden Design, I explored the parallels between user experience architecture and landscape architecture. The analogy was thought-provoking, but I put it on the shelf for a while as the immediate demands of work took precedence. However, at a recent social media discussion at ZAAZ, I started thinking again about how permaculture concepts can be applied to user experience design for the web — specifically, in social technologies.
Nature + Agriculture = Permaculture
Natural ecosystems evolved over hundreds of millennia, developing sustainable, complex webs of relationships over millions of generations. Humans gathered or hunted whatever edible organisms they could find from this emergent food web. However, supply was limited and unpredictable, which is why humans invented agriculture. Our ancestors replaced forests with fields, which were planted with carefully-selected species that provided the tastiest or most nourishing byproducts. Over time, these species were bred to maximize yield and reduce maintenance costs. Unfortunately, this led to a destruction of natural habitat and mass extinction of plants and animals that did not conform to the human ideal. Farms became brittle monocultures of one or two crops, denuding the land of nutrients.
There is a better way: permaculture. Permaculture is a human-cultivated, sustainable ecosystem that produces food by mimicking the balance and interactions between plants and animals found in nature. It basically involves planting a forest filled with a wide variety of native edible and beneficial species that enrich the soil and provide each other with nutrients, protection from parasites and disease. A permaculture plantation can yield food for humans and animals while surviving indefinitely — without the addition of artificial fertilizers, irrigation, or pesticides.
Permaculture for social media
What if we structured social media like a permaculture — capable of yielding revenue for a business while supporting a vibrant, self-organized, self-sustaining community indefinitely? What would that online community look like? How would we go about designing and structuring that permaculture for production AND longevity?
Here’s my unscientific and mostly untested back-of-the-paper-napkin wild-ass guess for an approach to applying permaculture practices to social media.
Step 1: Analyze the site
View your social media site as a plot of land. Each plot of land is different, with a unique mix of soils, wildlife, topography, microclimate, precipitation, sun profile, and people who live on or near that plot. The same principles apply to web sites. Each has a different organizational structure, political hierarchy, business model, content domain, audience, competitive landscape, and so on. In order to design a permaculture for your site and choose the appropriate elements for it, you must consider all of these factors.
- Business model: Begin by reviewing how resources — money, usually — flow into the business and, as a result, the web site. What are all the sources of funding, staff, political will, and so on?
- Content domain: What is your organization’s specific industry, subject matter expertise, or genre?
- Audience: Who do you serve? Who do you sell to? Where do you sell? From what cultural point of reference do you speak from?
- Competition: Who serves/sells to the same audience as you? Who offers the same product or expertise? Who has the same business model?
- Seasonal factors: How does the environment for your organization change over time? Based on historical records, what periodic fluctuations can you expect on a monthly, quarterly, and yearly basis?
Step 2: Design the value web
Let’s return to the analogy of the natural ecosystem. In every self-sustaining community of organisms, there is a constant cycle of give and take. Predators eat prey while becoming prey themselves to some other predator. Each organism eats something and is eaten by something. Every organism’s byproducts becomes food, catalyst, insulation, structure, protection, or poison for another organism. The complex network of dependencies that emerges from an ecosystem is called a food web.
On a full-circle farm, the food web is simplified to be more manageable by humans. The sun feeds the grass which feed the sheep whose manure fertilizes the grass and attracts flies which lay eggs which hatch into maggots which are eaten by chickens whose manure fertilizes the grass and enriches the compost which nourishes the corn which is fed to pigs… and so on. In a permaculture, the food web is more complex. Fungi on the roots of a legume will enrich the soil with nitrogen, supporting nitrogen-hungry onions whose flowers produce an aroma that draws harmful insects away from the fruit tree whose fallen leaves prevent water from evaporating and block weed seeds from germinating… and so on.
In a social media system, the people and business entities that make up the network of dependencies don’t eat each other. Instead, they form a living food web where the unit of exchange is value, forming a value web.
In order to create highly targeted, self-sustainable, vibrant social system that also makes money, we must identify how each actor in the system gains value from and gives value back to the system. Consider how users, the content they contribute, and the affordances provided by the system act to create a living, vibrant community. For each user, determine their needs, what they produce, and how what they produce meets the needs of other types of users.
For each product offering, feature, function, target user type, or content type, answer:
- Who will find value in it?
- Who will use the output of it? For what purpose?
- What information goes into it? Where does that information come from?
- What part of it can be used directly? (e.g., revenue generation, brand awareness, data mining)
- What useful byproducts does it produce? (e.g., metadata, customer demographics, behavioral data)
- What waste products does it produce? (e.g., irrelevant content artifacts)
- What does it compete with?
- What is its lifecycle? How does it change over time?
- What is its life expectancy? How often does it need to be “re-planted”?
In gardening, a common practice is companion planting, where the gardener places two or three plants that have some sort of simple dependency relationship near each other. Over time, the output of each plant will nourish its companion.
Companion planting can be applied to social media as well. For example, a Twitter-style micro-blogging feed from a product design team could be used to seed topics for a Digg-style feature-voting discussion board about the product. Votes and comments harvested from the discussion group could then be used to provide feedback to the product design team. By designing multiple clusters of such value loops and then linking them together, a nascent value web could be created.
However, it’s not enough to just create a network of dependencies. The value web must be flexible enough to survive, even if one element of that web is removed. Each organism has multiple sources of nourishment and produces multiple byproducts for multiple organisms. Additionally, each organism has individual variations, even amongst members of its species. This is what makes natural ecosystems robust enough to survive — and even thrive on — storms, disease, or seasonal fires.
In the business world, this strategy is called diversification. However, this usually means diversifying investments in multiple markets and multiple products. What needs to be added to this strategy is an understanding of the different kinds of value your customers gain from your business. Consider the value a customer gets from not just the product, but also from friends and family, other customers, society (in the form of social cachet from using your product), their own sense of accomplishment, your customer service, bonuses and rewards, and so on. If there are enough different types of value from a diverse enough set of sources, you could replace one of those vlaue components without causing a collapse of the value web.
Step 3: Fill in the niches
In nature, certain roles must be filled and in balance for a permaculture to form and thrive. Might we construct a social permaculture online by identifying and designing for analogous user roles to those in nature? (Or am I taking the analogy too far?)
||Social Media User Type
|Nitrogen fixers: plant/fungi symbiotes that improve the quality of the soil by pulling nitrogen from the air and convert it into highly-useful, nitrogen-rich foliage
||Users who bring rare and interesting content and ideas from outside the system and package it in a form that others can use
|| Provide users with a way to bring new and interesting content into the system.
|Dynamic accumulators: plants that draw useful and/or poisonous minerals & metals from the soil
||Users who find hidden, high-quality content already within the system and collect it together for others to use. Also includes the moderators who police the community by removing toxic elements and cultivating quality content and interactions.
|| Give them a means for users to promote and demote content already in the system.
|Living mulch: plants that crowd out invasive weeds through dense, ground-covering broad, shady leaves
||Users, in aggregate, who generate massive amounts of average-quality content and prevent spam through self-moderation. This is the background noise against which high-quality (and low-quality) signals stand out clearly.
||Encourage the average user to participate frequently and casually by lowering the bar for participation.
|Structural/Keystone species (usually, large plants that other organisms use as support, habitat, food, or shelter)
||Users who connect other users together and form the nexus of their social circles.
|| Allow users to form groups amongst themselves and invite others to join them.
|Pollinator attractors: flowering plants that entice bees, butterflies, and other pollinators into the ecosystem. In exchange for playing a crucial role in reproduction and stimulating fruiting, pollinators collect nectar from the flowers.
||These are the “cool kids” who set trends, mix up technology, and information in interesting ways, and encourage their friends to follow them.
||Form partnerships with notable industry bloggers; publish APIs to encourage mash-ups; reimburse content creators through micropayments or rewards points.
|Root crops: plants that store carbohydrates in large, nutritious taproots, breaking up the soil in the process
||Loyal lurkers who engage conservatively but consistently over a long period of time. They keep a sizable reserve of content private and form limited relationships with other users. They may represent a significant portion of traffic and revenue but rarely engage the business or other users in any visible fashion.
||Allow anonymous access, casual participation, and gradual engagement.
Step 4: Control Weeds
Some of the niches above will be filled naturally by “weedy” users. Weeds are essentially ANY plant growing in the wrong place. It could even be a very valuable plant, such as a saffron crocus or rare orchid. If it occurs in an improper context, it’s a weed. In a permaculture, weeds are naturally suppressed by having an abundance of the right kind of plant. If a community is filled with active moderators who diligently cull and suppress the irrelevant and harmful content, there will be little need for the business owner to actively weed.
Many social media sites simply start with an empty lot, letting their “plot of land” become overgrown with weedy users and their by-products — irrelevant content, off-topic flame wars, link farms, spam, and so on. Sometimes, by selective weeding and cultivation, these chaotic systems can be coaxed to some semblance of community. But it is very difficult, once a permaculture of weeds is established, to steer that community toward relevancy.
It’s far better to plan the social media permaculture and seed it with the right content and encourage the right users to participate. Identify and constrain the system to the audience you want to reach. Provide them with the right mix of functionality and interactions to encourage conversations and connections. Slowly add new elements until you get the right balance.
Step 5: Harvest, prune, and tend
The idea behind permaculture is to create a self-sustaining system that also produces food. In social media, you want to encourage community AND accomplish some business objective. How do you know the establishment of the community is helping you reach your goals? How do you know it’s making money? How do you know what’s working and what’s not? The answer: measurement.
Farming requires fastidious bookkeeping. What did I plant where? How did that plant react to the addition of the other plant? How did the late onset of summer affect yield? How does compost made of kitchen scraps and lawn clippings perform year-over-year compared to compost made with chicken manure? What’s the optimum distance between fruit trees so enough light reaches the understory to encourage the growth of fruiting shrubs?
The same goes for social media. Analytics must be collected throughout the lifetime of the site to understand the effect of seemingly minute changes to elements of the online community. You won’t be able to predict with 100% accuracy how your permaculture will develop over time. As a result, you’ll need to swap out underperforming technologies, keep an eye on content rot, prune back overgrown categories, re-target audiences, tune your messaging.
For the permaculture gardener, many of these optimization decisions require trial and error over decades. For a web site or online service, new features, designs, and content can be trialed and refined over a few weeks. Here are some of the most promising methods:
- Rapid, iterative testing & evaluation: prototype designs are tested with actual users, revised in real time or within a matter of days, and re-tested and revised repeatedly. This results in a relatively well-optimized pre-launch design.
- Beta launch: this is the pilot test. Users are more forgiving when informed that the site or service may not be stable. They are also more likely to return to see if improvements have been made since their last visit. Just don’t leave it in beta forever.
- Multivariate testing: in-flight testing of minor changes, run on a random selection of a small percentage of visitors.
The user experience of a permaculture
You may well wonder whether a permaculture feels any better to a user than a simple, straightforward, single-product site or service. I’m going to cop out and say, “it depends”. Any web site or product, no matter how complex, can be made to feel simple, given enough latitude in the design. Sure, a natural ecosystem would just look and feel like an overgrown jungle. But a truly useful, sustainable, and profitable permaculture by definition must have simple and aesthetically-pleasing pathways, fully-accessible harvest patches, and an easily-maintained structure. Likewise, a sustainable social media system must look and feel simple, approachable, and accessible, even though it may be supported by an extremely complex set of business rules and technologies.