Michael McDonald's Blog

Emergent Behavior

Last night I attended a BayCHI panel entitled 'Designing systems with emergent behavior'. It was an enlightening night, with lots of good discussions among some really smart people, but I was a little disappointed that most of the talk was poking at specifics of design and deconstructing current events rather than discussing 'emergent behavior'.

Panelist info:

  • Peter Merholz, President of Adaptive Path: Very straightforward and entertaining. Maybe it's his bald head but he reminded me of Seth Godin a couple times (that's a good association).
  • Tim Brown, President and CEO of IDEO, a company that I am totally in love with since reading The Art of Innovation.
  • Larry Cornett, who was understandably obsessed with Yahoo! Answers which he has been working on.
  • S. Joy Mountford, Yahoo Research

So, what is emergent behavior? According to the Wikipedia entry, emergent behavior or emergence is "the process of complex pattern formation from simpler rules."

Tools and rules seems to be the mantra of systems with emergent behavior. MySpace is an example of emergent behavior with lots of tools but few rules. Conway's Game of Life is an example of emergent behavior with no tools and few rules. The best examples of emergent behavior are simple online services being used in totally unexpected ways.

Some examples of emergent behavior:

  • MySpace, which became much more than a social network as people began doing anything and everything to their pages. The culture of music and band websites was particularly emergent. Tim described MySpace as "not designed", a description that I like on many levels.
  • Amazon Mechanical Turk. There was a great example last night where someone gathered a bunch of badly drawn sheep via the Turk then sold them as stickers.
  • Wikis, which have evolved into numerous applications such as documentation, corporate intranets and of course Wikipedia.
  • eBay, which evolved from individuals auctioning off items to becoming a marketplace of marketplaces.
  • Blogging (in general), which has evolved into numerous kinds of syndicated media, with several unexpected uses, and an evolving infrastructure of services like Digg, Bloglines, Google Reader, etc. to try to navigate the growing deluge of content.
  • The Web (duh)

Probably not emergent behavior:

  • Yahoo Answers: Interesting design challenges, yes, mostly because of the social aspects of the service. But I don't see any emergent "Huh..." things happening there yet.
  • YouTube: The most popular topic of the night, given its recent acquisition by Google, was pretty much designed to do what it does. Just because something is viral and wildly popular doesn't make it 'emergent'.

Friendster had emergent behavior, because it intended to be a dating site but instead started the social networking site craze. Social networking sites since then are not really emergent, because they're doing what they were designed to do.

But can a system actually be designed for emergent behavior? I'm pessimistic about this. If you expect a certain kind of behavior, then the result isn't emergent. Emergence is more of an organic process. A system is emergent when it is used in new, expected ways and starts to become something else when the designers look quizically at what the users are doing and say "Huh.. That's weird."

But good design also makes emergence possible. And by good design I mean elegance: designing systems that contain the most possibilities within the simplest interactions. If you keep a flexible mind when designing a system to solve a specific problem and it solves that problem well, you (or your users) will often find that you have solved something much more fundamental and they will start to use your tool as they see fit.

link  |   |  10/11/06 05:54pm
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