Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Design for Selfishness

In 1996, Paulina Borsook wrote a story that, frankly, really pissed me off. In “Cyberselfish,” published in Mother Jones and eventually turned into a book, she wrote about how new have-it-your-way technology was creating a generation of spoiled brats with computers.

I took umbrage. Not only was I a proud member of the generation she was lambasting (a generation that is now oldschool on the internet, for whatever that’s worth), but I had personally observed just the opposite. I witnessed people using new digital tools to collaborate. I saw more selflessness and altruism online than off. From the Open Source movement of the nineties to the mashup culture of today, I see a web that plays well with others. If the medium really is the message, I think the internet’s core message can be summed up in one word: Share.

Nowadays, people get that a lot more than they used to, and there are a host of new companies built to enable this sharing. But I fear that, in our rush to embrace the contributory culture of the internet, this new crop of startups is forgetting one thing: Paulina Borsook wasn’t wrong.

Here’s the thing: While it’s true that the net can inspire altruistic sharing of people’s time and talent, you still have to offer those people something for their troubles. If you have to pick between designing for altruism and designing for selfishness, pick selfishness every time.

People are selfish, and that’s okay. People are selfish with their time. They should be – there’s never enough of it. And they’re selfish with their attention – after all, if you pay attention to everything, you’d never get out of bed. Finally, and most importantly, they’re selfish with their talent. Writing that post, uploading that photo, participating in your virtual community … all of that is work for me. So what are you going to do to make it worth it?

If you’re making a product that’s asking users to do something – anything – that is going to add value to your company, ask yourself why anyone would bother. And don’t just fudge this. Imagine a busy guy who’s already got too little time to do what he needs to do every day. Why should he change his routine to play with your new thing? Here are some common bad answers to that question.

“Because it’s cool!”

Your users never think you’re as cool as you do – and that’s okay. You always know your product better than your users. It’s your job to prove how cool it is. But coolness is never a good excuse to do anything. Besides, the coolest thing you could do is give your users something of real value that they can’t get anywhere else.

“Because they contribute to Wikipedia/Slashdot/Whatever, and we’re just like that!”

Exactly. And because they’re already spending their valuable time contributing to those projects, they’re even less likely to spend their time on yours. They’ve already got places to go to do what you’re doing – you have to do it better (and communicate exactly how you’re better).

“Because we enable them to use their voice.”

So does everything else online. So does the telephone. So does this website (for me, anyway). The last thing most people need is another microphone. They need something to say. (And time to say it.)

So what’s a good answer? Easy. Take your pick:

Because we solve a problem they have. Because we give them something they can’t get anywhere else. Because we enable a kind of communication that’s unlike anything else. Because we make their lives more convenient. Because we give them, or save them, money. Because we enable them to do more with less. Because they told us they wanted to.

Notice a theme in these answers? They’re all things that help individuals in their own lives. Some might call this selfish, and who knows, maybe it is. All I know is that if you design with these goals in mind, you’re much more likely to have a successful project.

And here’s the really cool part: Designing for selfishness does not mean abandoning the group good. In fact, some of the most selfish systems create great value out of self-centered behavior.

Take tagging. Flickr enables people to tag their photos, for example, not because it helps the community, but because it’ll help you find your photos easier in the future. That’s the motivation. Totally selfish, right? Except that the aggregate selfish behavior of millions of people tagging billions of photos means that the public tag pages make entertaining surfing for everyone.

Same goes for the tagged posts in Technorati, and tagged bookmarks in Delicious. In each case, self-centered behavior powers something that’s good for the whole community. Some will argue that people are now tagging their stuff just to get it in these public directories, which is true. But even that is a selfish desire. The way to any blogger’s heart is through their ego.

Or take spam. It’s a real issue for millions of people. When I flag an email in Gmail as spam, I’m doing it to get it the heck out of my inbox. But when a million users do it, they’re creating value for the entire system. Because when Gmail is able to identify spam better, all of its users see less penis enlargement subject lines. But note how the button doesn’t say “Help Gmail perfect its spam algorithms.” It says: “Mark as spam.” This is something you do to help yourself. It just happens to benefit everyone.

So was Paulina Borsook right? Are we all a bunch of selfish kids, playing with our digital toys? Perhaps. But she was overlooking all the ways we can take those selfish motivations, embrace them, and turn that energy back into benefiting the whole community. It sounds crazy, but it works. Someday a billion bloggers talking about what they had for lunch might just indirectly find a cure for cancer.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.