The Mullet Theory of Social Software Design
For several years, I’ve been using the phrase mullet theory of software design to talk about a very special kind of software: the kind where it’s all business up front, but the real party is in the back. Tumblr has always been the perfect example of this: to any random person on the web, a tumblelog looks more or less like any other blog that’s short form or otherwise (though usually prettier)—but most of the real sub-communities and fringe cultures are all jamming in the back room on the dashboard.
I think it’s my favorite mode of social software because it’s the one that combines utility the most with it’s socialness. Because of the utility, it’s not as necessary to shoe-horn users into auto-following awful things that they won’t like (think Gimme Bar vs. Pinterest). Because the social mechanics aren’t gamed, the actual value to the social pieces is much higher.
Some of the original social software on the internet was marketplaces. Ebay was dependent on an engaged network of users mutually reviewing each other to broker trust in the marketplace, though the identities of those users were often obscured and that was fine because those users would never meet face to face. These days, mutual reviews are just as important for building trust in a marketplace, but they’re often taken in wildly divergent directions. For example, Airbnb focuses heavily on real-world identity because their marketplace depends on people actually meeting in the real world. The flip side of that coin is a marketplace like the Silk Road, where the users need an identity to accrue karma in the marketplace, but it’s crucially important that the identity and the actual currency of the marketplace are obscured from real world identity because the participants are exchanging contraband products.
A while back, Chris Dixon asked Roelof Botha:
the “why now” question regarding web-based marketplaces. He said something I thought was really interesting: marketplaces depend on trust, and trust requires knowing the reputation of a prospective counterparty. Today, for the first time, you can get background information on almost any prospective counterparty by searching Google, Facebook etc. Or put more simply: we finally have an internet of people.
But that internet of people is a way of saying that we now have multiple modes of looking at identity and what we actually have is an internet of people with identities that can support real-world needing to meet in person transactions—which is a large part of commerce in the world.
Bringing that back to the mullet theory of software design: it’s a perfect way to build a marketplace. Have a very tuned funnel—it’s all business up front. But build your product around something people love and support multiple kinds of identity with a crazy rager in the back. Airbnb’s taken that torch a very short way to great effect, Etsy is doing a lot of experiments but hasn’t tied them into the core experience of their product, and Fab is doing some great things but ultimately isn’t a peer-to-peer marketplace.
And yes, that’s exactly what I’m working on—if you want to ask about it you have to use the password “Tennessee Flap.”