Tuesday, March 31, 2009

SXSW: Facebook Developer Garage

Facebook Developer Garage, another open-to-the-public event I went to during SXSWi, left me with mixed impressions. It took place in the Pangaea lounge. With its curvy, low, plush benches, dim light, and a wooden decor accent resembling a giant pipe organ, it's a sleek place to hang out, but a poor venue to hold an educational tech event. There was no WiFi and no power outlets there to plug one's laptop into, and not many batteries last 3 hours. Wouldn't you want to take notes at an event of this kind? I'm sure I wasn't the only one who did, because every other person had a laptop. That is, if they found a place to sit. The line for the event snaked halfway around the block. After all those people crammed into Pangaea, a goodly percentage of them had nowhere to sit. The early birds who did find a place to perch weren't necessarily lucky, because people standing in the isles blocked the view of the projector screen.

I'm not sure what I expected from this "garage". Probably not a discussion of technical details such as Facebook API. No doubt it can be found on the web, and it makes more sense to study technical specifics at a computer than in a lecture. I guess I was hoping for a rationale of why would one build Facebook applications, ways to monetize them (not sure anyone has ever found one :-)), or social engineering strategies that would get Facebook users to adopt your application.

The first presenter, Josh Williams from Alamo Fire, talked about Facebook applications his company has built. He shared some interesting insights. Their applications were born of discovery that some people like to collect icons. Some people like to collect userpics and avatars for no specific purpose. They don't necessarily use them in games, websites or discussion forums -- they collect them just because they like icons. So Alamo Fire tapped into this hobby. I think he was speaking about the Packrat application. Here's a downside of not having WiFi at the event: you can't just go to the company's web site and check out what they're talking about!

They also have another application, Gowalla, which is kind of like digital collecting combined with -- or inspired by -- geocaching. Gowalla encourages people to take pictures of places they visited, and rewards them points for that. So for example, you can get points for taking a picture of yourself at the state Capitol. It sounds pretty useless at first. But a lot of people like to do useless things on the internet, and the fascinating thing about it is how such applications make little quirky time wasters socially acceptable. Maybe you secretly like to collect pictures of state capitols, but you don't show them to your friends for fear of looking too dorky. I can identify with it: in my teen years I liked to collect street names, despite them being not very tangible collectibles. :-) I even drew my own street maps, and was proud of finding obscure, well-hidden streets that I was sure none of my friends heard about. Not that I asked -- there was that weirdness factor. And what do you know: these days there is an Open Street Mappers group in Austin! I was 20 years ahead of my time. :-) Alas, I found more interesting hobbies since then.

But I digress.

This shows how internet gives you a medium for turning quirky, nerdy things into something cool. Pretty much anything you can do for points can be turned into competitive sport. And competitive sports is a paradigm our society understands.

This wasn't the first time I stopped to think about it, but the Alamo Fire presentation provided yet another take of this general idea. I've said in the past that a lot of tedious things can be incentivized by turning them into the game. Have people do chores for points (they don't even have to be monetary rewards) and they'll get excited about housework. Chore Wars game is based on this concept. Gowalla taps into human nature in a similar way. As I make progress in building my dream application, I'll have to keep in mind that this social engineering aspect may be crucial in its adoption.

Josh Williams from Alamo Fire talked about the social mechanics of the application, but not about how they are relevant to Facebook. Among them, he discussed the point system, and how to set it up so that the players won't try to "game" it. For one thing, the point system shouldn't reward players for doing mindless repetitive things over and over, because then they'll rack up points with no effort. He covered formation of groups. Yet all those things are not specific to Facebook.

All of this was interesting, but I did not stay to listen to other presentations. With SXSWi being as busy and full of wonders as it was, there was no justification for continuing to be deprived of power outlets and ability to take notes.

Pictures from Facebook Developer Garage, Barcamp, Dorkbot and other SXSWi events are in my photo gallery.

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