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Hypergene MediaBlog » Usable exhaust: The active ingredient of effective social media
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Usable exhaust: The active ingredient of effective social media

In The Social Life of Information, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid concluded “it has become clearer that technology alone cannot dictate its ultimate route. Social life, social needs, and social aspirations remain critical influences.”


This week’s acquisition of Delicious, the shared bookmark service, by Yahoo is evidence that the search giant is eager to bolster its competitive advantage by infusing its offerings with a meaningful social component.

Not unexpectedly, Yahoo’s purchase, along with Flickr earlier this year, got a lot of people buzzing about the Yahoo deals are fresh validation of tagging and folksonomies.

Though tagging shows promise and elicits valuable user-contributed content, to assume it constitutes the main ingredient of social applications does little to enlighten. But if used in the proper way, tagging suggests a larger and more important movement afoot. It’s something Yahoo gets and other social media efforts should embrace: Usable exhaust.

Usable exhaust
The unintended benefits you or others get out of a service just by using it.

When we look at social applications we now look for those that are designed for producing second-order benefits - usable exhaust - which can potentially have a more powerful and unique impact. (For the record, we can’t take credit for this term. It was dropped on us by a Brian Hansen of Kaboodle, during lunch one day this summer. It just stuck with us.)

When we started actively using Delicious in November 2004, our intent was to share links between each other for blog posts or research. This is what Delicious was designed for - social bookmarking. Since then, we’ve managed to collect more than 1,900 links.

But soon after we began bookmarking, we found others were interested in what we were collecting. Even The began to use our Delicious feed for their Media section.

What we were creating was useable exhaust - a useful spin-off of our selfish efforts, which began to have a social life of its own. Another example can be seen in the tagcloud above where we’ve accidentally created an zeitgeist of what interests us.

Much of the success of Delicious came not only from providing the bookmark service (Furl, My Web and many others can do that) but from creating a remarkable means for discovery and remembering.

Recently more social media and network applications have made an important shift from being social for the sake of it (affinity models like Friendster and LinkedIn) towards a more purposeful approach (Flickr and Writely).

So how do you discern the difference? Here are a few guidelines for undertaking the daunting task of creating applications that generate useable exhaust:

  • Resist the common urge to design for a limited set of outcomes. Design for serendipity.
  • Provide APIs, which let anyone extend the utility of the core service - create more exhaust.
  • Focus first on providing a simple and valuable service.
  • Don’t expect people’s habits to change. (Don’t force a rating or tagging system that’s superfluous to the user’s core goal.)
  • Don’t be social for social sake. Provide a social infrastructure that can be explored at will. Don’t flaunt it unless necessary.
  • Don’t let a community or individual dominate the service.

Some examples of these guidelines in use:


Flickr encourages uploading and annotating first. Interactions with the community or chance connections provide the icing on the cake. All of this is handled well by choosing a simple level of privacy on an individual or batch of photos. Making a photo public is less of a technical chore, like say locking a file on your hard drive, and more of a tacit invitation to have a conversation with a larger social infrustructure (family, friends, groups).

Such an approach prevents what Paco Underhill termed the dreaded Butt-Brush Factor. Blatant, albeit unintended, physical contact with people in a store makes people too uncomfortable to shop. People are social but they need their space. A social application needs to identify the level of interaction necessary, if any at all, to make the core experience memorable and rewarding.


What makes Delicious cool is that it has remained simple and hasn’t been design for a specific outcome. It designed a means for letting people remember pages important to them. It also made it easy for others to use or create usable exhaust with APIs.

Yahoo seems poised to leverage that. Want to make is a social search engine? Try Delicious meets Rollyo. Delicious contains links to 10 million pages with more than 500,000 tags associated to them. Instead of just searching that relatively small collection of links, why not let us roll our own search of domains with specific tag intersections (e.g. search only domains tagged with mainstream media and trends). Rollyo is an interesting service, but it requires someone to actively create a personally relevant search before using it and doesn’t benefit from the work you or others have already done.

Ross Mayfield has written about a similar progression of search from public to personal to social.

Yahoo and Google

All of their wonderful APIs, which can be remixed in limitless ways.


Easily overlooked in the cacophony of AJAX is RSS. RSS is a perfect example of usable exhaust. It’s unobtrusive, standardized, portable and easily remixed for different purposes. How much more difficult would it be for Technorati to uncover what’s being said on 20 million blogs without it? Even Target has a feed. While we’re on the topic, Feedburner would be another great purchase for Yahoo.

Whether you’re creating a collaborative word processor, event calendar, or news site, take the time to think about the how your community can generate the most useable exhaust.

Reaction: Brian M. Dennis loves usable exhaust but takes issue with our analysis

Posted on Dec 11, 2005 | 2:50 am EST

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I don’t understand what you mean by saying “take the time to think about the how your community can generate the most useable exhaust”, what does that have to do with what people do online?

Posted by: Jamie on Apr 26, 06 | 8:38 pm EST

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Everything. is a good example. The service first helps you create your personalized radio station.

In doing that well, it must ask you about you your likes and dislikes. then takes that information to find better music for you and then find members with similar interests.

More importantly, the more members who pursue their musical interests, the better can data-mine the information to give you better selections and bring to your attention emerging bands.

So has created something like a perpetual interest engine.

It has grown a community by first satisfying an individual’s online music needs and then developed the tools to siphon the collective likes many music lovers in the hopes of enhancing the individuals experience even more.

So, understanding what people want to do online becomes the basis for what usable exhaust can and should be created.

Posted by: chris on Apr 26, 06 | 10:03 pm EST


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