The web is social, and thus minor features can matter a lot

June 15, 2014

For a very long time, DWiki (the software behind this blog) had a very primitive comment system. One of the ways that it was primitive is that it didn't have any explicit user-visible field for your name. When you made a comment here it showed up with your IP address at the time and it was up to you to explicitly sign the comment in some way if you wanted to. I always knew that this was rather low-rent, but it took me years to get around to fixing it. One of the reasons that I didn't get around to it very fast was that I didn't see it as a very important change; after all, it was just being a bit more explicit about comment author identification.

I was wrong. After I made the change last August, my perception of the entire character of the comments section here changed. The easiest way to put it is that suddenly I was reading and interacting with people, people with names (and sometimes websites). Part of this is that people actually filled in their names where before many hadn't gone to the extra work of signing their messages, but another part of it is that once I had people's names I changed how comments were displayed to show the name instead of the IP address. And the two together worked a magic transformation from bland IP addresses to named people.

The first lesson I draw from this is something that I already knew in theory, namely that the web is a social place. Interacting with people is a powerful thing and we like it. The more we see our interactions on the web that way, the better, which means that features that encourage that feeling are probably a good idea (even if they're small and simple ones, as here).

The second lesson is the power of small changes (or at least what you think of as small changes). My current guess or theory about this is that ultimately the illusion of personhood on the web is made out of smoke and mirrors; it's at least partially a trick we all play on ourselves when we imbue some codepoints on a screen with personhood and so on. As a trick, little nudges can go a long way (and probably little glitches can ruin the illusion). We're predisposed to see things on the web (and anywhere) as people, so all it needs is a push to do it and that push can be a small one.

(This goes with the general idea that people are social that I wrote about a long time ago.)

(I doubt that this is a novel observation. I just feel like writing it down due to my own striking experience with the DWiki comment change. Such a relatively small change, such a big shift.)

Written on 15 June 2014.
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Last modified: Sun Jun 15 21:53:41 2014
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