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Posted by: Helen Walters on April 17, 2010
I’m a big fan of what can happen when worlds collide, always enjoying the effect of bringing together people with diverse experiences, knowledge and skills. This afternoon, I headed to the New Museum in Manhattan for an event that explored the intersection of art and technology. It was a treat. The gist: new media art nonprofit Rhizome used its curatorial savvy to pair up some of the world’s most creative technologists, including Tumblr’s David Karp and Delicious founder and current Googler Joshua Schachter with some amazingly inventive visual artists, such as Kristin Lucas and Monica Narula. Each assigned pair met the day before and had 12 hours to come up with an idea, application, model or plan they then presented to a packed house in the New Museum theater.
Essentially, the curators were brave enough to say: “you don’t know each other but you’re smart and your collaboration will be interesting. Have at it.” It was a high-risk proposition, and truthfully not all of the results were entirely convincing, but there were some really, really good ideas on show that hint at the wealth of creativity and innovation yet to come in the Web 2.0 space.
My favorite presentation was from Matt Mullenweg, on the right in the picture, founder of blogging platform WordPress. He was paired with graffiti/urban artist, Evan Roth. Together, they set out to dig into the concept of online community, a hot button issue if ever there was one. They decided to play around with the interface of WordPress’ blogging admin system—and potentially tap the service’s 12 million users as beta testers. WordPress users can now activate a “surprise me” button in their personal settings.
Humanize the stats
They were thinking, said Mullenweg, about “opt-in serendipity”, a charming idea in our data-overloaded, often impersonal-seeming world. The stats page on WordPress is apparently the busiest page on the site, and the pair wanted to convert the data it provides into something more meaningful and memorable than dry graphs. So now, those users who’ve activated that “surprise me” button can see the number of hits their blog page got along with related information from the real world. Your page was read by the same number of people who live in a certain town in South Dakota, say. Pictures of that town also show up to make things both more visual and more personal. Using what Mullenweg described as a fairly basic mashup of Google search, Wikipedia and Flickr, the automated function adds whimsy and a sense of community to the often solitary experience of publishing a blog post. (“Your words are being read. You’re not alone on a desert island. You do matter.”)
“This post is super-awesome”
In another recognition of the solitary nature of blogging, Mullenweg and Roth also wanted to celebrate the publishing efforts of the individual writer. Or, at least, allow the user to celebrate him or herself. So they added a “this post is super-awesome” button authors can check when particularly pleased with a specific post. And they’ve introduced video snippets of scenes replete with whooping, high fiving, slamdunking and general celebration that might play when someone hits the “publish” button. The Tiger Woods hole-in-one footage seemed off to me but there were some great clips. Randy Kennedy from the New York Times even filmed a little segment saying “from the world of publishing, congratulations on publishing.” I’d definitely smile if that played after I’d just sent my pearls of wisdom off into the ether.
Mullenweg activated the new functionality before the presentation. By the time the pair were on stage, nearly 5000 people had turned on the “surprise me” button, testament to the willingness of web denizens to embrace creativity and experimentation. Then again, Mullenweg confessed, 214 people had promptly turned it off again. “The opt-out rate is higher than I’d like,” he said.
What comes next? The BusinessWeek Innovation and Design team of Michael Arndt and Helen Walters chronicle new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.