Monday, May 05, 2003

Good Experience Live IV

Stewart Butterfield: Possibilities, Constraints, and Experience

Stewart Butterfield is president of Ludicorp Research and Development Ltd. and founder of the 5k competition, a lo-fi, high-profile design contest. A member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences, he recently served as a nominating judge in the Best Practices category for the Webby Awards. Here is a rough transcript of his talk at Good Experience Live:

I was directing a design group at a Web agency, and one of the designers was developing a template. They were really big and super ornate and were getting upward of 60k. I told him that they had to be smaller than 25k, and he said, "No way! There's no way anyone can design something smaller than 25k." Oh, so? So I got the idea of holding a contest to develop Web sites smaller than 5 kilobytes. That's 40,960 bits. Those bits are either on or off. That's about 850 words in English. It's a pretty small picture. There's an infinite range of possibilities of things that could be 5k in size.

There's some math behind this. 2 to the power of 1 is one dimension. It's a possibility space. 2 to the power of 2 is two dimensions, a plane. And 2 to the power of 3 is three dimensions, an object. 2 to the power of 4 is a hypercube, about the limit of what we can draw on a plane. In that case, one node has three neighbors. In 5k, there are 2 to the power of 49,960 possibilities. 40,960 is a mind-blowing number of dimensions. And 2 to the power of 40,960 is even more mind-blowing. It's more than the number of milliseconds since the big bang multiplied by the number of particles in the universe.

When we started the contest in 2000, the average home page might have been about 80k. was 120k. So 5k is pretty small. Nevertheless, every point in a possibility space differs from its neighbors in some minimally different way. The more complex the space, the more minimally different neighbors each point will have.

The reason 5k seems small is because there's a progressive process of adding constraints. One is the way we encode information. After coding something in ASCII, you have to layer HTML. Maybe you layer cascading style sheets. Maybe you layer Javascript. All of these constraints make the possibility space smaller.

What makes sense? Constraints of natural language. Constraints of utility. Constraints of aesthetics. What is beautiful? The process of design is often the identification of a tiny island in a possibility space. If you look at the 5k competition, there's some interesting stuff. Every year, themes will come up. People will get similar ideas.

That's because constraints are everywhere. Think of music, architecture, and poetry. Experimentation usually means playing with constraints. Additional constraints are often employed in creative competition such as 48-hour filmmaking, three-day novel writing, and two-ink design competitions. There are all sorts of contests that are like the 5k.

Introduction of constraints motivates people to become more creative. The project I'm working on now is a massive multiplayer game for the Web called Game Neverending. Games are very interesting. The rules of the game are constraints. When you define a game, it's defining a set of constraints. In researching games and play, I came across this quote from Martin Buber: "Play is the exultation of the possible." And then we have Richard Pew: "Design is the successive application of constraints until only a unique product is left."

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