On our way to my job interview in Riverside last week, we found ourselves stuck in Los Angeles’ legendary bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic. As we crept our way through East L.A. on Highway 60, we noticed an Outback Steakhouse and decided to stop for dinner. Our thought was that perhaps the traffic would clear after an hour or so.
Why Outback? We had a gift certificate.
Although I truly believe in the saying that “meat is misery” and the smell of animal flesh cooking makes my stomach turn, even vegetarians can get by at a famous steakhouse chain restaurant, at least if you’re willing to content yourself with bread, salad and a plain baked potato.
I noticed that the servers had left a stack of coasters on our table bearing one of Outback’s mottoes: “No rules, just right!” This got me to thinking a little bit about the nature of rules.
Rules may be imposed to place a certain amount of structure on operations so that everyone knows what to expect, but they can also be used as means to brutally enforce the will of a despot. Free spirits and those who feel like rats trapped in a maze may despise rules and may rebel by flouting and perverting them at every turn. This appears to be the zeitgeist into which Outback is tapping: When you walk through our doors, you are free to do your own thing, man! Woohoo!
And yet, we know that some level of rulemaking and rule enforcement is necessary to the success of any collaborative effort, including that of living together in what we refer to as “society.” Our laws are a set of rules; free will dictates that those subject to said laws may choose to abide by them or to ignore them and face the consequences. One of the goals of our criminal law rules, for example, is to prevent others from committing violence against us (and to remove the violent from society, thereby preventing the perpetration of further harm against the populace).
Rules are an important part of “how the world works,” which is why they are taught to schoolchildren. We have adopted the convention that 2 + 2 = 4 to avoid Babel, i.e., so that all of us are on the same page and able to communicate in the same “language.” Many hands may make light work, but collaborative effort becomes impossible when the group is unable to agree on baseline standards. And when we join a new group, our first task is always to discover the rules and norms that must be followed in order to be accepted as a member.
It has been said that both children and adults crave a certain amount of structure (rules) and look to others to impose it. I would venture to say that a total absence of rules would create an intolerable level of chaos in most of our lives.
Still, it seems that many of us feel oppressed by too many rules and dream of casting off the shackles thereof: No rules, just right! People claim to prefer doing what they choose to do rather than what they have to do.
I thought about rules again while reading Scott Berkun’s new book, The Year Without Pants (see yesterday’s post for a more extensive discussion). In his description of the new user experience on wordpress.com, Berkun states, to my shock, that most users starting a WordPress blog never put up a single post. I was perplexed. Now why would anyone bother to set up a WordPress account if they didn’t plan to post anything?
My guess is that planning has nothing to do with it. Berkun posits that customers may be led to WordPress because someone told them “you should have a blog.” Presumably, such conversation came about based on some interesting life experience or based on some topic on which the would-be user has demonstrated some level of expertise. In other words, something that others would want to read about.
Berkun states that the ideal path for the WordPress blogger would be to get an idea, write about it, publish it and “be happy” (get tons of likes, follows, comments, be Freshly Pressed and live happily ever after in the company of fairies, rainbows and unicorns, tra-la). Instead, Berkun tells us, many would-be bloggers abandon their blogs either immediately upon signing up for them, or after failing to come up with an idea that they deem worthy of sharing with the world, or after writing a draft of a nascent post and rejecting it as not good enough. In other words, too many bloggers never hit that Publish button either because they are too lazy to put in the thought and effort necessary to compose a blog post, or because they don’t believe in themselves enough to expose themselves to the potential ridicule of the big, bad blogosphere, or because they aren’t satisfied with their initial efforts and would just as soon blow it off and play another game of Temple Run or Words with Friends. In some cases, perhaps potential bloggers are subconsciously influenced by the puritanical admonition “don’t start something you’re not going to finish.” And, of course, a blog is never finished. It is always a work in progress. This is the song that never ends, it just goes on and on, my friend, la la la.
Besides, it’s boring and hard to have to think of something new to say all the time. Even those who publish interesting posts often abandon their blogs after a while. It’s a lot of work and, well, there are other things in life that demand our attention.
Or maybe there are just not enough rules.
In a “No rules, just right!” environment, there is little incentive to take time to learn about the venture on which you are about to embark. I’ll just do whatever I want to do, and that may well be nothing. If it’s free and I don’t have to worry about getting my money’s worth, and if I am automatically (Automattically?) accepted into the group without having to worry about conforming to pesky norms to avoid getting kicked out, well then, by golly, I haven’t invested a thing so why should I care? Oh, and I forgot to call Aunt Mabel (or I have math homework or I need to switch the laundry). As the AOL signoff says, “Good-bye!”
Let me tell you a bit about how I published my first blog post back in March. I had found about WordPress from other websites and had clicked around and looked at a few blogs (not the easiest thing, by the way, when you are not yet signed up and don’t know what the heck you’re doing). Then my wife’s grandmother passed away and we made a long trip on short notice to be with family. Upon my return, I felt sufficiently moved by the experience to write a short piece about how I felt. I figured some of our family and friends might be interested in reading it. After I wrote it using Microsoft Word, I saved it to my laptop’s hard drive and wondered whether I should email it to family members or what. That’s when I remembered that I had been looking at WordPress recently. I signed up for a blog, thought of a name on the spur of the moment (one I have since come to realize is more than a little dorky, but I feel invested in it now and will not be changing it anytime soon – sorry), and posted “Grandma’s Funeral.”
In other words, I wrote first and set up my blog after. Now, I realize that this is not how most new users enter into the WordPress world. Perhaps I myself am the exception in this case, the rebel, the one who does his own thing and snubs his nose at social norms. Except I had no idea what those norms were at the time and therefore could not have known I was snubbing them.
So what would I propose? Maybe it’s time for some rules. Maybe we need some new UI feature that requires the would-be user to submit a piece of writing before he or she can create a name, pick a theme and sign up for a blog. The piece would automatically be published at that point. True, the user still might never post another, but at least he or she would experience the “happiness” of seeing their work in print. That in itself could be enough motivation to do it again.
So what do you say, WordPress?
I can hear the whining already. But we don’t want to raise any barriers to new users. But we want to make it so easy even a caveman can do it. Well then, I suppose the question is: Do you want to continue hosting the multitude of users, so aptly described by Scott Berkun, who never post a single word? Is this the kind of customer you really want, WordPress?
Some say it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Perhaps a corollary applies to rules. Rules may be made to be broken, but it is better to have to break them than never to have had any rules or structure at all.