Thumbs up/down, the simplest form of user feedback

Users really appear to love being able to give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ to any statement they see on a website.

Strongly disagree with a YouTube comment?  Give a thumbs-down!  You have expressed an opinion in only a single mouse-click!

The ease of expressing pleasure or displeasure upon someone else’s opinion in a single click seems to be a highly effective way of getting feedback from your users, because it exploits their desire to have their say, at the same time reducing the barrier of entry: typing a reply in words is no longer necessary, neither is logging in, filling out a form, or even visiting a different page.

Harness the crowd’s wisdom

Simple feedback systems like this can even serve as a n0-maintenance extension to your comment moderation: enough down-votes, and your system can be pretty sure, without you even reading it, that a comment is offensive or irrelevant enough to be removed.  A YouTube comment with many down-votes appears hidden by default – depending on how many, you may still be able to view it, but it’s highly likely to be offensive or spam.  It appears to be pretty effective.  Users are willing to do your moderation for you even if they get nothing in return other than the satisfaction of showing their approval or disapproval.

Getting feedback on a blog in the form of comments is very difficult: for every thousand people who read something, a tiny fraction will go through the effort required to fill in their name and write out a proper response, even if you have a comment form that requires no approval or sign-up.  If you are writing something highly controversial or offensive, or taking a side on a ‘hot topic’ (Apple sucks, Microsoft is better) you’ll probably find that tiny fraction rise substancially, but otherwise eight hundred people could read a blog post before anyone comments.  So, given that it is so hard to get any feedback by comments, why not allow one-click feedback?


What I think of as the YouTube model is not unique to YouTube: Facebook uses the same sort of thing, so does Digg (of  ‘digg it’ fame), and my new favourite StackOverflow does the same sort of thing too (though you need reputation to vote), and many others – sadly, sites such as haven’t followed yet.  The basic characteristics of this model are:

  • One click ‘vote up’ or ‘vote down’ buttons next to comments.
  • Clicking them records your vote instantly without a page refresh (Ajax techniques are used).
  • There is usually some way that voting something ‘down’ penalises it; it may cause it to move further down the page, or a certain number of down-votes may ‘hide’ it.

I like it so much that when I find myself reading user comments and I can’t give it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, it frustrates me; I’ve come to expect to be able to give one-click feedback.

Previous experience

The success of Hot or Not and a whole generation of clones showed the addictive popularity of giving users the ability to give feedback with no more intellectual effort than a single click.  Instead of a single up-vote or down-vote, however, the user had to choose a value out of ten, and while it only required a single click, it did result in a page load.  Nevertheless, people spent hours and hours on sites following that model.  While originally they were rating photos of people based on looks, the concept spread to rating all sorts of other things, like graphic design work, poetry, and jokes.

I believe that the thumbs up/down approach takes this two steps further – by reducing the number of available choices down to two instead of ten, and by accepting the feedback without a page reload (due to Ajax techniques).

Years ago I implemented a rating system on a website of my own, making a conscious decision to reduce the number of possible choices from ten down to only three.  My belief at the time was that it was a sweet spot, between getting enough useful information from users, and being simple enough so that as many users as possible would use it, because it was such a no-brainer.  Adding the voting option under each piece of content did result in participation and increase page views per user.  In retrospect, I could have reduced it further to a single ‘up-vote’ and ‘down-vote’, and I suspect the participation rate would have been even higher due to the lower mental effort required.  The ‘results’ allowed me to rank items on the site according to popularity; the front page item was always one of the most ‘popular’ in terms of votes.

As I publish this, I just noticed that allows nested comments now – maybe they can allow ratings on comments one day soon!

RSS feeds not fit for human consumption

It’s not feeds that I have a problem with, just using the term ‘RSS feeds’ or ‘RSS’ to describe them.

The term ‘RSS’ is hairy to begin with.  It isn’t sure if it should stand for ‘Really Simple Syndication’, ‘Rich Site Summary’ or ‘RDF Site Summary’.  That third one, with the nested acronym, is particularly hideous.  Passable for people who work with RDF perhaps, but that isn’t many people these days.  Besides which, ‘syndication’, and ‘site summary’ just don’t seem to convey the right idea to me.  They don’t reach out and tell me about grabbing headlines and bits of articles from a site and viewing them in other ways.  ‘Site Summary’ is a fairly vague term which could just as easily refer to a website’s ‘About Us’ page, and ‘Syndication’ is not really what feeds are used for these days.

Then there’s the issue that not all feeds are RSS, and not even all RSS is RSS.  RSS is a name used by two separate, competing and incompatible formats (or more if you count previous versions which are not forwards-compatible).  RSS is therefore not only useless in referring to the concept of a feed, but it’s useless in referring to a particular format of feed.  Yet another format is called Atom – not RSS at all.  The term ‘RSS’ unfairly excludes other implementations of the same concept.

Feeds are being increasingly used by web users due in part to better integration of feed readers or subscription mechanisms for feeds into browsers.  But along with this we need to use an appropriate name for them.

I am a fan of the term ‘web feeds’.  Firefox 2.0 used the term ‘feed’ as in ‘subscribe to this feed’.  The upcoming Firefox 3.0 gets more specific by calling them ‘web feeds’.  Internet Explorer 7.0 simply calls them ‘feeds’.  Opera 9.x muddies things by alternating between the terms ‘feeds’, ‘subscriptions’ and even ‘newsfeeds’.  And last but not least, Safari 3.1 refers to them as ‘RSS’.  Not even ‘RSS feeds’ – just ‘RSS’.

Google Reader simply calls them ‘subscriptions’ as far as I can tell, which is a decent term.  In other locations Google also uses the term ‘feeds’.  Wikipedia’s main page about feeds is now called ‘Web feed’.

With the exception of Safari, then, the major browsers and the other companies I mentioned have all opted to avoid the technically vague and misleading ‘RSS’ term and go with a more general term for the concept, with ‘feed’ by far the most popular, followed by ‘subscription’ and trailed by variants upon the word ‘feed’ such as ‘web feed’ or ‘newsfeed’.

So, is ‘feed’ a suitable term?  The word itself doesn’t describe the function; feed could easily be something I give to an animal.  The usage of the word seems to come from the context of radio or television broadcasting, where a ‘feed’ is some content that has been sourced or ‘streamed’ from another network.  It’s not an obvious link, to me at least, but once realised the analogy holds up.  I can subscribe to a feed of content sourced from another website.

What is certain is that the term ‘RSS’ really has to go.  It isn’t specific enough to be used as a technical term because it could refer to one of multiple competing formats.  At the same time, it isn’t inclusive enough as a general term as there are feeds that are not actually using any RSS-named technology.  With the exception of Safari, the term ‘RSS’ is not exposed to end users in any of the major web browsers, which instead opt for the more general ‘feed’ or ‘subscription’.  Most of all, it’s a confusing, alienating three letter acronym that doesn’t become more self-explanatory after expanding it into any of its many alternative backronyms.

Spam your friends to win

Any software application which encourages or requires you to pass on messages to your friends is a bad thing.  Facebook is a culprit because it promotes applications which do this.

Applications that do this are a bad thing because while the person using the application is not inconvenienced very much, it will annoy all that person’s friends.  They, unfortunately, had no say in whether they got this piece of advertising sent to them.  Because it came to them via a friend – someone they know – they feel they can’t complain.

It’s something that is pissing me off about Facebook at the moment, but before I go to that I wanted to talk about about viral marketing.

Although based on a pre-existing concept, the buzzword viral marketing comes from pre-2.0 web days, and refers to any marketing which is done by encouraging people to pass a marketing message on to their friends, voluntarily.

The idea that this is voluntary is key here.  Sure, perhaps none of the ‘friends’ solicited this advertising, but the idea is that the person passing on the message truly wants to spread the good word about a product or service.  Let’s say I eat a delicious meal of fish and chips.  If I recommend it to a couple of my friends, I am participating in viral marketing.  In order to put this into motion, the fish and chip shop had to create a product that was so compelling, its customers could not help but to spread the good word to their friends.

The problem worsens slightly when the passing on of such marketing messages is not entirely voluntary: it is influenced in some way. For example, a web application will suggest that the user forward something to their friends, making it easy to do so by providing a special form just for this purpose. This makes the passing on of the message less of a natural, evolutionary process where the best products will generate the most interest, and transforms it into a process where companies offer various gimmicks to encourage people to ‘forward’ messages to their friends.  The messages just start to get annoying.

I’m annoyed when I see that I have a message (email, SMS or some other online message) from a friend, only to open it and find out it is, well, spam.  I’m even more annoyed to suspect I’m not the only one who received the message: that my friend probably spammed a whole bunch of people, and I am only one of many.  It’s a small slap in the face to find that a message from a friend is not a personal message at all but was forwarded.  It’s a much larger slap in the face when it’s an obvious commercial or hoax message with little to no hint of personalisation from the friend – no ‘hey M. I thought you’d be interested in this cos you like horror movies’, just the impersonal forwarded message.

This is what the term viral marketing came to mean on the web.  Claiming on the surface to be a natural, non-intrusive process in which people only pass on messages to friends who they believe will genuinely and personally benefit, it’s grown into a group of industries that seek to exploit people by preying on their gullibility and the carelessness with which they will send on messages to their friends for a trivial reward.

Marketing is not the only motivation behind getting people to forward messages on to their friends.  Some people or companies do it just to get a kick out of seeing how far their message spreads.  This is the case with hoaxes and chain letters, both of which deceive people in order to get them to forward the message on to their friends.  The latter lie about various benefits the user will receive if they forward the message.  These can prey on the superstitious (‘forward this to 20 people or your hair will fall out’), the greedy (‘send a $1 to this person and before long you’ll receive over $300’) or otherwise gullible (‘forward this message to all your friends so that Microsoft don’t shut down your account’).

Email itself can be a problem.  The relative ease with which somebody could forward a received message to their entire address book used to land countless chain letters in my inbox, though people seem to be a lot more educated about the problems of spam these days that it isn’t so much a problem – besides, there are far greater problems with email spam.

Facebook is a bad thing because it allows for applications to be built which require or encourage you to pass on messages to your friends. It is too easy for applications to exploit users into passing messages around the network, because every Facebook user is inherently connected with a network of friends, including friends who share trust, and are interested in communicating with each other.  Facebook users install applications which are written by third parties, with varying motivations for creating them. In many cases it appears that the application developer simply wanted to get a kick out of seeing how quickly their application would travel around the network.  Applications also derive income from advertising, which ties the developer’s bottom line to the number of people using the application.

Some of the fastest spreading Facebook applications are the most annoying. For example, the applications ‘Super Wall’, ‘Fun Wall’, any application which appears to be some sort of IQ or personality test (with the exception of the one actually called ‘IQ Test’), ‘Top Friends’ and more have spread quickly through the network due in part to the fact that in order to participate in them, your friends have to be involved too.  However, these applications exploit people as described below.

‘Super Wall’ and ‘Fun Wall’ lead users to believe that only by installing this application will they be able to send and receive wall posts containing videos, pictures or gifts, but these are all available in the regular built-in wall.  The only unique feature of these applications is the existence of a ‘Forward’ button below every post, which makes it easy for users to forward a message to not just one, but many of their friends at once.  The messages sent through these applications are therefore much less likely to be personal, as they are used to send messages at large to many people.  This has given birth to the phrase ‘click forward see what happens’, a gullibility test in itself which has failed enough people that hoax messages like these litter the entire network, proving to be an annoyance to everyone, not only those that fell for the lie.

A number of times have I installed an application that seems like a relatively fun and silly test – of my personality, for example – and have filled out the entire questionnaire only to find that in order to see any results I have to forward an advertisement to at least 20 of my friends. Presumably, the fact that I invested so much time filling out what I thought was just an amusing little test will outweigh the guilt of annoying a bunch of my friends with a promotional message encouraging them to install a certain application, and I’ll go ahead and spam them in order to get my results.  Not me though.  I will simply get angry and give up on seeing the results, concluding that I have just had ten or twenty minutes of my free time wasted in the name of trying to get me to spam my friends.

Perhaps if Facebook were not such a ubiquitous and otherwise useful medium I wouldn’t be nearly as annoyed.  I have received invitations to do various things in other social networking software and have just turned it down, because it didn’t seem worth using them anyway.  But nearly everyone I know my age has a Facebook account – I can only think of two friends my age who don’t. It’s becoming such a normal way to communicate with people.  Some friends even send out invitations to social events through it.

I guess that Facebook could remove the ability for applications to forward messages to many people at once.  But the entire network stands to benefit so much from the rapid take-up of its applications that I presume they’d be resistant to taking steps to limit this spread.

I maintain, however, that applications, such as Facebook applications, which encourage or require users to pass on messages to friends are a bad thing and should somehow be restricted.  There is no need to remove the ability for someone to tell a friend about an application altogether.  But it shouldn’t be allowed to be forced or encouraged, for if this is done it ceases to promote adoption of applications based on their true merit and becomes a competition in which application developers try to deceive or exploit people.

Further reading

3D web browser shows the future of the web

Tired of viewing boring flat web pages on a boring flat screen? Well, the future looks pretty sweet. Now you’ll be able to zoom around your web pages in pseudo 3d space as if you are superman flying around in a world of flat plastic billboards, stopping to peruse them from a funny angle.

This futuristic vision comes from an article about the SpaceTime browser, which even has screenshots of what the 3D plastic web pages look like.

It isn’t the first of April and this is a real, downloadable product, so maybe I’ll have to actually address some of the things wrong with this glowing newsvertisement and prediction of the future of the web.

It looks like there’s a lot of screen space dedicated to displaying empty space, a faded grey-black gradient in front of which the web pages you’re viewing ‘float’. Web designers are forever trying to fit more onto their pages, for better or for worse, and as monitor resolutions increase, web pages will try to fill them as much as possible. Browser designers think (and argue) long and hard about how they can improve screen space by removing unnecessary elements. That’s why the web page in Firefox goes all the way to the edge of the screen, the tab bar and scroll bar is hidden when not needed, and Internet Exploder 7 does away with the menu bar.

When I am browsing with multiple tabs, the tabs are lined up from left to right in a linear fashion along a bar. I don’t have to remember the vertical and horizontal position, depth and angle of each tab. In 3D if I move my viewing position, particularly angle, in the 3D space then I’ll be completely lost. This happens whenever I click on a different tab. More wasted space, too: each tab has its own fat title bar and close button.

Each floating ‘tab’, which is the wrong word to use in this 3D environment, is fairly small. A ‘zoom’ function enables you to make it bigger, but this just zooms into the same small window onto a web page; it doesn’t show more of a web page.

Am I expected to read any text on one of those ‘other’ tabs (or search results) which is floating away in the ‘distance’? It looks like they’re there just to remind you that you have other stuff open, which can be done a lot better if it is done sparingly and isn’t constantly distracting me from what I am doing on my chosen tab and taking away valuable screen space.

Thankfully, I can ‘maximise’ a tab, and it will fill the screen like a normal web browser. For a little while. As soon as I go and open something in a new tab, or switch tabs, or go ‘back’, everything goes back into 3D view and my pages get really small and text becomes fuzzy and most of the screen is filled with blank space.

What is the point of using a 3D interface to display things which are inherently two-dimensional? It adds complexity to the simplicity and lets you get lost in a whole new dimension.

Why should a web browser include a ‘gravity’ toggle and buttons like ‘straighten up’, ‘fly’ and ‘reset scene’. Isn’t that just kind of insanely ridiculous? And what is the point of being able to ‘walk’ or ‘fly’ behind a web page? The back and sides of a web page are grey, by the way.  Maybe HTML will evolve so that someday we can put stuff on the back of a web page.  Not.

History is always repeating and people are always going to claim something is new when it isn’t. For decades people have envisioned future user interfaces as being inherently three-dimensional, but shown on two-dimensional media such as computer screens or big glass displays. It’s reflected in futuristic movies and TV shows too. It’s become such a trite view of the future that I have seen it used to comic effect, and to pretend that this prediction of future web browsing interfaces is in any way new and innovative is laughable.

It isn’t a 3D web browser. A 3D web browser would browse a 3D web, but the web is only 2D. It’s browsing a 2D web and hanging the two-dimensional web pages in a 3D space. At best that’s 2.5D. VRML was a 3D web and an alternative to the text and 2D graphics based HTML, but it is all but unused now. It didn’t turn out to be a handy way of representing things on the web. Now some people are claiming that Second Life is the future of the web, but it isn’t really going to take over from the web and isn’t intended to. It is an interesting virtual world to walk around in and interact with people, but what if you just want to look something up? I use the web so I don’t have to walk around looking for stuff in buildings or worry about the clothes I’m wearing.

Second Life

Disadvantages to Second Life as a universal communication medium.

  • High cost barrier to entry
    Second Life requires expensive computer hardware, including a fast, modern computer and expensive video card not found in typical workstation or laptop computers. It also requires fast broadband internet access, which is not available to many users. These are barriers of entry to those who cannot afford a modern computer and extra hardware for gaming. See System Requirements.
  • High resource use
    As a communication medium, Second Life has high bandwidth, storage and computer power requirements in order to facilitate a 3D world with complicated colours, textures, sounds and avatars (virtual clothing and appearance for users) which aren’t necessary for a communication medium. As a result, the interface loads and runs slowly and requires more resources when compared to other communication mediums such as email, IRC and instant messaging.
  • Central commercial control of virtual world
    Even though the Second Life client is an open source application, in order to interact in the virtual world known as Second Life one must still connect to a server owned and controlled by the company Linden Research, Inc. It is this company that has access to and the ability to record all interactions happening within the Second Life world, and the existence and integrity of the world is owned by this company. By contrast, communication mediums such as email are based on open standards and do not rely on communication with any one commercially owned server in order to function.
  • Cost of owning real estate
    Leasing land on Second Life costs real money, and the market for such land is fully controlled by the Second Life publishers. Thus any organisation wishing to establish a permanent presence in the Second Life must pay whatever fees the publishers wish to charge. There is no competition because it is wholly controlled by one company.
  • Unfamiliar interface
    While many people are familiar with 3D worlds through playing computer games, to most people a 3D computer-game-style world is entirely unfamiliar.  The generation-Y stereotype portrays young people as all being more comfortable in 3D virtual worlds than any other medium.  Indeed, media coverage of MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft and EverQuest seem to support this stereotype.  However, is this nearly as ubiquitous a medium among young people as the stereotype implies?

For those few people who are fortunate enough to have a gaming-spec computer at home and occasionally play MMO (massively multiplayer online) games, Second Life will seem boring, slow and clunky by contrast.  Second Life is not as slick as what online gamers have come to expect.