Self Service Systems

At the Y the other day, I noticed that locker 1 is labeled “Lost and Found.” This idea is so simple, it only qualifies as brilliant because I have never seen it anywhere before. The lost and found is usually hidden away behind somebody’s desk, which makes it far less effective. An accessible lost and found locker runs on the same principle as Wikipedia, a free community-edited encyclopedia, and other such “self service systems.”

Since 2001, the Wikipedia community has written the largest English encyclopedia, as well as encyclopedias in almost two hundred other languages and side projects that aim to catalogue all human knowledge. Wikipedia allows anybody with Web access to read and modify its content, which allowed it to grow large so quickly, and its web-based nature also makes it the timeliest encyclopedia in the world. The most amazing part of Wikipedia is that, even though anybody can very easily fill the encyclopedia with advertising, bias, obscenity, and other garbage, its pages are almost always accurate and well-written.

While probably more important than helping people find their missing gym shorts, Wikipedia works for the same reason the lost and found locker does. Assume that most people are good. This might be wrong, except that the systems can only work when most people do not want to cause harm, and they do work, so the assumption is at least right in a limited scope. Since these good people generally would not steal from the locker room or spam the encyclopedia, it is safe to use these systems. (The reason it is safe to have mostly good people instead of only good people is low opportunity cost: lost and found items are of little value, like a sweaty towel, and changes to the encyclopedia are tracked and reversible.)

These self service systems are not just safe—they are beneficial. In a typical lost and found setup, people are usually lazy. Most items lost are cheap, so returning them is not a top priority, especially when the loser is unknown. Being able to throw the fugitive shampoo bottle into a locker on your way out reduces the laziness barrier to zero. It is not good that people are so lazy, but there is no sense in denying it. Similarly, Wikipedia could have been a set of simple web pages, and if anybody wanted to change them or add to them they would have to email an administrator, but I think it is obvious that that would not work.

The Web abounds with other examples of self service systems, notably “folksonomy” organization on sites like and Flickr. Some cities such as London are experimenting with “naked street,” a traffic model that takes out all formal controls and trusts people to handle themselves on the road. Surprisingly (or not), this also seems to work.

Self service still has not penertated mainstream culture, which might be for the better in areas where the risk is higher, but it is definitely a powerful way to harness people to help each other. It is at least something to consider when designing interaction, whether in a club, on the Web, or in any other group situation.

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This was written on Tuesday, May 10, 2005 by Lenny.


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