When Crappy Infrastructure Makes for Good User Experience

It’s more fun when you can’t do much with it

Sometimes I love tumblr because it’s so dang hard to get anything useful done on it. I have only a hazy idea of who follows me, I can’t send links in messages, I have difficulty finding the urls of people I follow, and it’s impossible to CC anyone in a message. And all of this makes for a more pleasant user experience.

Let me explain: When I said “useful” above, I meant it with a grain of salt. I love good, efficient design, and I like being able to do useful things. But the problem with efficient design is that it can be efficiently used to do really annoying things, useful only to the person doing them. Facebook and twitter and myspace before them all quickly succumbed to self-promotion and spam; tumblr, mercifully, is largely devoid of this. Sure, there’s the occasional bot, and sometimes someone will start a chain-post asking for reblogs in return for the chance to win, say, a camera or something, but there’s relatively little follow-for-follow or invitations to subscribe to this or the other page. 

And why not? In tumblr’s case, aggressive following is minimized by the fact that keeping track of who you’re following is so difficult. Go to your “following” page and tumblr will display twenty-five usernames, with those blogs you’ve followed most recently appearing first, and those you first followed coming last in the list. If you follow more than twenty-five, you have to click “next page” for another list, of the same length and arrangement. Check your page listing who follows you, and it’s the same set-up.

Which makes it rather trying to find anything. There’s no way to search either list (unlike facebook, where friend lists—your own and other people’s—can be mined easily), and they’re not even arranged alphabetically. Tumblr doesn’t release a lot of metrics, so it’s impossible to say how many tumblogs the average user follows or is followed by, but it’s safe to guess that it’s more than twenty-five. Since there’s no option to change the number of blogs listed (unlike the search pages of, you know, pretty much ever major site on the internet), most users are stuck with paging through the reverse-chronological list. And it’s not even a well-formatted list—twenty-five lines is more than easy to fit on most screens, but the entries are so large (complete with user icons) that the list occupies three whole screen-lengths—there’s absolutely no way to quickly scan the list.

And that’s just seeing where you stand. Actually communicating is even harder. First of all, there’re two ways to message someone—via the /ask link, or via “fanmail.” Neither of these works well—a lot of themes don’t even display an “ask” link, meaning only the tumblr-savvy can send messages by manually typing in the appropriate url. And regardless of how you send a message, tumblr won’t let you send a url or an email address—you have to get ingenious with your brackets and your spelled-out “ats.” And even after all this, there’s no way to send a message to more than one person at a time, never mind blitzing your entire follower list.

Why do I go into all this UI nitty-gritty? Because I love the end result. There’s no way to market anything. Facebook allows mass-messages, and even encourages it; you can even send invitations to “like” something, totally obviating the need to actually write a message; twitter doesn’t allow mass-DMing, but it does let you make “lists” of who you follow, and puts all your followers and following on a single page, so a quick ctrl-F gets you what you’re looking for. And these are great features. They get stuff done. But they fundamentally alter the nature of the user experience from placid consumption to either active solicitation or active avoidance of that solicitation. 

There is always a trade-off between usability and incorruptibility; make a platform powerful, and it becomes a potential conduit for spam; make a platform totally impervious to solicitation, and no one will be able to do anything creative on it.

Whether a given platform decides to err on the side of usability or incorruptibility depends on the designer’s end goal for the user; in tumblr’s case, the site’s ethos rests on a kind of contemplative enjoyment; no one’s there to network. Turn to twitter, and there’s a lot of glad-handing—but it’s also the best place to get that kind of thing done (I’ve met far more interesting people on twitter than, say, LinkedIn, a site specifically designed for that purpose.) 

What does this mean for emergent platforms, like Medium (or Svtle, or App.Net, or Snapchat, or kik, or Vine, or Ghost?) 

First, I suspect that traditional social networks based on sharing thoughts or desires (facebook, google+, Pinterest) will decline (as has already been shown), while networks based on media-creation (youtube, Instragram, flickr) will continue to hold their own, even as they lose their social focus. However, as this shift occurs, the distinction between functionality and enjoyability will become increasingly important. Platforms like Snapchat, kik, and Vine are about sharing media, and are, at the moment, pretty limited in their capability; the user remains passive, enjoying the content. Medium, Svtle, and Ghost, however, are about sharing ideas, and correspondingly invite the desire for more functionality. Will Medium allow us to send private messages (aside from comments on specific posts)? Will we have mining-ready lists of subscribers and followers and likers? I can see it going either way, and any approach will have its advantages, but a lot—in terms of the user’s experience, the site’s purpose, and its longevity—rests on the decision.