The Influence Project: An Exercise in Bad Design

Fast Company recently launched their Influence Project, an ambitious endeavor that aspires to answer the question: “Who are the most influential people online now?” It’s a pedestrian enough concept- measuring participants’ influence by the propagation of their personal URL. The catch: It’s easily the most poorly designed design and implementation of this concept to date. A few points:

  • The site takes a full 1:20 to load, if it loads at all. The balk rate will be phenomenal. Moreover, if someone clicks on a participant’s unique URL and decides not to wait for the Flash monstrosity to load, the click is lost (I tested this a few times). This effectively weeds out anyone with a job or a life, which makes one wonder if the project will ultimately reveal the most influential single unemployed people online (in attracting this audience, The Influence Project may actually cause a brief drop in traffic to icanhascheezburger.com).
  • The UI is gratuitous and meaningless. It’s a cluttered collection of profile pictures, each sized to indicate the owner’s “influence.” ┬áIt leaves one begging for TouchGraph.

The most striking thing about this project is that the extraordinary friction in user experience will yield an outcome that the most influential people online won’t pay attention to. Hopefully the results will be summarized in a format that is more accessible than the project itself.

A Different Word for Everything

Today’s NYT story on P.R. in Silicon Valley caused a bit of a stir in the blogosphere, most notably with TechCrunch and Scoble. Both make good points, and while PR has changed with social media, it remains as predictably stratified as any other business based on relationships, access, and attention. Not much news there.

The kerfuffle surrounding this, however, isn’t really about P.R. It’s about segmentation. When discussing the rollout strategy for Wordnik, one of his portfolio companies, Roger McNamee is quoted as characterizing TechCunch et al. as cynical. Perhaps it was a poor choice of words (are you really going to coach Roger on diction?), but in the context of Wordnik, it is an interesting choice of words.

Wordnik is a big idea, but it’s not without nuance. It’s a real-time dictionary and concordance and if it’s successful, it will have some interesting and potentially sweeping implications- from how we acknowledge, learn, teach and use language, to the currency of language itself. It’s a social experiment, enabled by technology, but driven by an erudite notion- a notion that a lot of people, including the readers of the blogs referenced, may not find that compelling (and may find trivial, hence the suggestion of cynicism).

Segmentation and targeting pose a dilemma for both sides- we all tire of promotional spam and yet being overtly excluded from outreach sends a pronounced message of omission. Would that this commotion were so simple.

Saying you DON’T care about a handful of influential blogs that can have an impact on your business, and saying it on the front page of the business section of the New York Times, can yield only one outcome- coverage by the disparaged. There’s a word for that.