Question: What do YouTube, Wordpress, and Wix.com have in common?
Answer: They all exist to reduce barriers to participation. Each one of them can be described by the Colbin Barrier Reduction Formula: “Thanks to Company X, anyone can Y.”
Barrier reduction can refer to your ability to upload a video or start a blog -- or to things that are much more profound, that can have a lasting impact on our lives. Last week, I spoke of Ryan Reynolds, whose work fits the formula: “Thanks to Life in Vacant Spaces, anyone can try out an idea on a vacant site in our city for 30 days, for free.”
Along the same vein, in October 2010 Dave Meslin gave a great talk called “The Antidote to Apathy.” Meslin describes seven barriers that keep us from taking part in our communities. Just as YouTube shifted the paradigm of the video industry by making broadcast accessible to everyone, reducing these barriers to civic participation can shift the paradigm of government and citizenship, offering individuals a greater sense of agency and creating an environment where people feel it's not just okay to take action, it is actively encouraged.
Barrier reduction is sometimes known by other names: “empowering,” for example. But it’s not just about empowerment. Empowering is about giving authority; barrier reduction is just about making things simpler. If the hurdles are too great, it doesn’t matter how much you empower us; we still won’t take action. But if taking action becomes easy, then we just might find ourselves willing to step up. And if we step up often enough, we might just perceive ourselves as the type of people who step up. And if we perceive ourselves as the type of people who step up, we might just be willing to invest the effort to overcome the hurdles we do encounter in those situations where someone hasn’t gone through the trouble of reducing the barriers for us.
You see how barrier reduction can create a virtuous cycle?
Conceptually, the difference between an offering that reduces barriers and one that doesn’t is similar to the difference between a platform and an application. Marc Andreessen summed it up talking about Facebook back in 2007: “Definitionally, a ‘platform’ is a system that can be reprogrammed and therefore customized by outside developers -- users -- and in that way, adapted to countless needs and niches that the platform's original developers could not have possibly contemplated, much less had time to accommodate. In contrast, an ‘application’ is a system that cannot be reprogrammed by outside developers. It is a closed environment that does whatever its original developers intended it to do, and nothing more.”
(It’s worth noting that Andreessen’s third company could also be described by the Colbin Barrier Reduction Formula: “Thanks to Ning, anyone can start their own social network on any topic, in two minutes.”)
Reducing barriers doesn’t necessarily mean providing REST APIs, which is what Andreessen was praising Facebook for at the time. What it does mean is that systems that invite, facilitate, yes, even empower others to participate can achieve far more than systems that simply offer prepackaged services. As Harry S. Truman said, "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit."
Personally, I would offer a slight tweak on Truman’s words: “It is amazing what can be accomplished if you reduce the barriers to others’ accomplishments.”
Make it easy to participate, and you can change the world.