[Reprinted from my Red Herring column, 2004.]
I've had my own blog since late 2002. The post with the largest number of comments isn't my hilarious, cutting review of Matrix Reloaded; it's not my insightful analysis of Andy Clark's Natural-Born Cyborgs; it isn't even my post about Danish train stations. No, the post that has inspired the largest number of comments is one about Super Nanny, a reality TV show.
And most of the comments don't have anything to do at all with my post. Instead, the commenters are just venting about child-rearing, praising the show, or saying how much they love super nanny Jo Frost. I'm the equivalent of the bartender: I put out the nuts and wipe down the bar. Except this time, the patrons have brought their own bottles.
How did this happen? And why does it matter? The answer to the first question is easy: Google. For reasons that I can't divine, a search on "Super Nanny" returns my post about the show as the #2 result. I have no idea why. And why does it matter? In its own small way, it's an unexpected, but illuminating, example of user reinvention, the phenomenon wherein people take a technology or medium intended for one purpose, and remake it for themselves.
Blog posts regularly take on lives of their own, even on blogs that don't attract lots of comments (like my personal blog). An entry I wrote comparing cell phone repairs in Asia with those in the U.S. became a magnet for people looking for cell phone manuals, or were offering courses to become a cell phone technician.
At one level, this is no more unusual than two people striking up a conversation in the supermarket checkout line. There are lots of situations where physical proximity suggests that you share interests or experiences with people around you. This is one reason conversations on airplanes—particularly long flights to exotic destinations—are relatively easy to start. Online spaces don't offer quite as rich a set of opportunities for strangers to start talking to each other, but as Microsoft's Marc Smith says, if you're one in a million, on the Internet there are 768 of you, and you can all find each other. Small wonder my blog post about Super Nanny would turn into a digital front porch for fans of the show.
But in other cases, the supermarket checkout line turns into something else: people block the aisle, bring in some tables and chairs, and open their own café. Online spaces aren't just appropriated, they're taken over and transformed. The amazing but now-defunct Invisible Adjunct, a blog about the travails of academic life, because a kind of water cooler for disenfranchised young professors and graduate students. It wasn't unusual for an entry to have dozens of comments, and for a conversation to stray far from the original post. In a similar vein, Amazon reader reviews can turn into samizdat performance art, as sociologist of technology Josh Greenberg writes. Dozens of glowing, absurdist reviews of [X] become a kind of asynchronous improv comedy routine.
Fortune magazine recently ran an article on companies' gathering user feedback on designs and prototypes. There's now a cottage industry of consultants and corporate ethnographers who put together focus groups that look over sketches, and test out different combinations of options and offerings (something especially important in car design, where there are millions of possible feature combinations). Some of this work has been made easier by the Web, which lets you solicit respondents at relatively low cost, and build geographically and economically varied groups.
But reinvention goes deeper than this. Car companies have always wanted to make products that people like; involving them earlier in the design process is an incremental shift in design practice (car designers' grumbing notwithstanding). What's more revolutionary is designing a car that's easy to modify. This is what Ford has done with its Focus, and Honda with the Civic. A portion of each car's market consists of people who walk into the showroom knowing that they want to pour $25,000 into customizing their $18,000 car. Ford and Honda both work with people from the mod world to make sure that their cars can be customized more easily than the competition.
Modding is also part of the computer industry: savvy (or just crazy) users tired of beige boxes have put computers into table lamps, stuffed animals, or cool, neon-lit cases. But this is largely a world of do-it-yourselfers. Paying someone else to stuff a Linux box in your Darth Vader mask piggy bank defeats the purpose.
The reason reinvention is worth paying attention to, and the reason companies need to pay careful attention to users, is that the technical bar for customizing and remaking products is dropping.
What's going to make reinvention more pervasive? There are several drivers.
One will be the shifting of functionality from hardware to software. As more features are created through computer science than mechanical engineering, it becomes easier to add new additional functionality to products. The mobile phone and personal computer industries are at the forefront of this trend: as any IT administrator will tell you, no two computers are really identical, any more than any two cell phones are. Some of the difference is a matter of the product's physical history; some of it comes from programming; and a lot of it is user-created content.
Another driver is pressure on companies to make electronics greener. This no longer means just bringing down energy consumption. The epicenter of green design involves two things: eliminating toxic materials like lead and benzene from electronics and packaging, and designing products to be easier to recycle or reuse. The Seattle Times recently reported that Panasonic designers now "conduct a 40-step review that, among other things, looks at the ability to recycle materials used in their prototypes, and how quickly products can be taken apart for recycling." As a result, a Panasonic TV used to have 13 types of plastic, and require over two minutes to disassemble; now they have two kinds of plastic, and can be taken apart in half the time.
A third driver is the shift many companies are trying to make from being manufacturers and purveyors of physical goods, to being service providers. Again, the mobile phone industry is following this strategy, giving away phones in exchange for service contracts. An even more interesting example is… carpets. A few years ago, Armstrong carpets made a determined effort to make their carpets more environmentally friendly (many industrial fibers are tiny hazardous waste sites); they also put a phone number on the underside of the carpet, to schedule pickup of an old carpet. (This also made sense because, once they had changed the chemistry of their textiles, Armstrong could recycle a larger proportion of their old carpets.) Finally, they realized that they had backed into a new business model: customers were no longer buying carpet, they were buying the use of the carpet.
So environmentally sound design, greater use of intelligence in products, and a strategy of shifting from being manufacturers to service providers all work together. Customization plays well with all of them. Eco-friendly design and greater reliance on bits rather than atoms creates greater possibilities for user reinvention; facilitating that kind of user behavior is critical for a move from goods to services. It can make the difference between products that are nice to use, but not used often, and ones that are addictive—and used constantly. It's the difference between something you own, and something that's a part of you. It's the difference between something you buy, and something you invest time and energy in—and are less likely to abandon.
So what do you do? In my case, I'm trying (more out of amusement than anything) to keep the traffic coming. I haven't written other posts about Super Nanny. From what I can tell, few visitors click from that page to others on my blog, so I've expanded and updated that original first post, in the hope of keeping things interesting. And, since I expect that most visitors will comment if they see other people have commented, I want to concentrate the conversation in one place, not spread it out over several posts. This violates the unwritten rules of blogging—or maybe they are written down somewhere—but readers are responding to it: the hits and comments keep coming. Like it or not, we're all in the customization business.