The Coefficient of User Innovation Friction

In February 2007, Mike Adams, who had recently joined Automattic, the company that makes WordPress, decided on a lark to endow all blogs running on with the ability to use LaTeX, the venerable mathematical typesetting language.


Since then, as reported by observer/participant Michael Nielsen (1, 2), Tim Gowers, Terence Tao, and a bunch of their peers have been pioneering a massively collaborative approach to solving hard mathematical problems.

via Jon Udell, who is The Man

This story is cool in at least 2 ways. First, it warms the cockles of my hacker heart to hear that someone decided "on a lark" to add LaTeX to Wordpress. I never used LaTeX for anything only because I'm not a math person and I didn't make it far enough in school to go beyond plain text. But deciding you're going to add support for a beloved but extremely niche typesetting language to the blog software you work on is an impressive thing no matter what.

The main reason this story is cool is the collaborative project that emerged due to this niche feature. Sure, mathematicians could have, and I'm sure did, collaborate on sites before this but from what I read in the comments, adding formulas into websites previously was time-consuming at best. A long time ago there was talk about an addition to HTML called MathML to do just this but I'm not sure what happened to that, and in any case LaTeX is an accepted standard people are used to. So having support for this kind of thing is just the perfect reduction in friction that can help something new emerge. Having to learn a new standard or go through a whole process to display formula is enough trouble that most people won't participate. If people can re-use existing skills in a new place, more people can contribute and do new things.

When Mike Adams added this feature, I'm sure he thought he helping a few mathematicians add formulas to their blogs and that was it. But the important thing was the removal of friction. If you can remove just a little friction from a social tool that a lot of people use, you're opening it up to allow people to create new things you never thought of. When a new tool like Twitter or Google Wave comes out, I never pay much attention to the uses the creators come up with. What I really watch out for are the things the users come up with. It cost nothing for users to add hashtags to Twitter, but it's incredibly useful and cool and will probably end up being part of how they make money. Whenever Google Wave comes out, the important things will be the ones people add later. If the friction is low enough.