Talking with Gavin Bell about Building Social Web Applications

My guest for this week’s Innovators show is Gavin Bell, author of Building Social Web Applications. A lot has changed in the decade since I wrote my own book on this topic. One constant, as we discuss in the podcast, is that we still reach for special terminology like computer-supported collaborative work or groupware or social software. That won’t be true forever. Sooner or later we’ll take for granted that all networked information systems augment us collectively as well as individually. Until then, though, it remains appropriate to speak of social web applications as opposed to simply web applications.

Whatever we call this kind of software, it’s a challenge in this era of tech churn to write about it at book length. This effort succeeds by exploring patterns and principles that will endure no matter which technologies prevail. Yes, it’s an O’Reilly technical book, with the traditional animal picture on the cover — in this case, of spiders. But it’s not code-heavy. Gavin Bell aptly compares it to the polar bear book by Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld. Both books draw on a wealth of experience gleaned from building and evolving web applications.

For designers, developers, project managers, and online community managers, Building Social Web Applications addresses questions like:

What are the social objects at the core of our application?

How can relationships form around such objects?

Which search, navigation, access, and notification patterns can best support those relationships?

How do we evolve our application as our users gain experience with these object-mediated relationships?

We’ll be thinking about these kinds of questions from now on. Gavin Bell’s excellent book provides a framework in which to do that thinking.

Talking with Daniel Debow about using Rypple to open the Johari Window

On this week’s Innovators show, with Daniel Debow of Rypple, I learned about a cognitive psychological tool called the Johari Window. Rypple focuses on the quadrant of the Johari Window at the intersection of “known to others” and “not known to self” — the so-called blind area. The company is dedicated to the proposition that if we can become more aware of what others know about us that we don’t, we can improve ourselves along various axes: personal, social, and — critically for Rypple’s business model — professionally.

How do you gain that awareness? By asking questions like:

Am I giving sufficiently clear guidance?


Do I interrupt people too often?

You direct these questions to a set of people whose feedback you value. Rypple anonymizes their responses and, to the extent you buy into the service, provides a progressively capable framework within which to continue the dialogue. This is a great idea, and one of the very few appropriate uses for online anonymity that I can imagine.

Rypple, as a company, lives at the intersection of a couple of key trends. Social media, obviously, but also the services ecosystem. As we discuss in the podcast, corporate HR has historically been a monolith that expects 100% compliance with its systems. But people, as we know, differ emotionally and cognitively. We should be able to use a variety of methods to manage and evaluate people, and help them manage and evaluate themselves. Software delivered as a service is an enabler of that possibility.

Here’s a twist: A company won’t have access to the feedback that employees solicit using Rypple. Daniel Debow says that HR folks, well aware of mainstream social software, are ready to embrace this model. I hope he’s right.

His favorite recent story about Rypple goes like this:

At an HR conference I talked to the CEO of a company that uses Rypple. He’s excited about what we’re doing, but he said: “You have a real problem. Use of your system might make your system obselete. We’ve been using it for a while now, and I’ve noticed that people are much more willing to give me feedback face-to-face, they’re willing to talk to me.”

Well that’s the furthest thing from a problem I can imagine. It’s like saying to Facebook, you’ve got a problem, people keep meeting on Facebook and then meeting up in person and creating real relationships offline.

Actually that would be problem for Facebook. But Rypple isn’t about pageviews, it’s about helping people improve. Which seems like a great idea to me.

You can, by the way, use Rypple not only to solicit anonymized feedback from a chosen set of responders, but also from an open-ended set. So here’s my question:

How can I make my ideas more accessible and more actionable?

I’m asking a chosen set too, but if you can perceive my blind spot I’d love to know what you see there.