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Build for you, too

I had a revelation about the book I’m writing at about midnight last night: something that elevates the whole idea and ties it together in a way that I didn’t think I’d even been looking for. It makes the idea more resonant for me, which is what I need to emotionally follow through with a project. I’ve been struggling, and I hope this extra motivational push will help me. It turns it from something I think is a good idea to something that is intensely personal for me. It answers the question why should I write this? in a way that isn’t just because.

This led me to thinking about the software projects I’ve built. It’s all well and good to say that you need to build something that people want - which, of course you do - but that doesn’t answer the question of why you will follow through with it. Why is it meaningful to you?

I’ve worked on many things, but probably the two most prominent projects were something called Elgg and something called Known. Elgg was an open source social networking engine, built for higher education, which was originally inspired by LiveJournal: a place where anyone could post to as big or as small an audience as they wanted, and converse, using any media. Known was more of a publishing platform: something like a decentralized, self-hosted Tumblr that allowed you to build a stream of content that any number of people could contribute to. Perhaps by coincidence, I build them a decade apart.

When I worked on Elgg I had a giant chip on my shoulder. I was much younger, and high school was still relatively fresh in my mind. There, teachers had laughed at my ambitions, and more so, at me. I wanted to prove that I was capable of doing something smart and meaningful. More than that, as a third culture kid, I constantly felt out of sorts: posting online had allowed me to show more of myself and find friends. Creating a platform that allowed other people to do the same also carried the hope that I would meet more people through it. Through the software I made, I hoped I would be seen. It won awards, was translated into many languages, and became relatively influential. Because it was fully open source, any organization could pick it up and use it for free. I felt good about it, and it felt like I had done something good that in some ways justified my existence. My photo is on my high school’s alumni website: I showed those teachers.

In some ways, that motivation carried me through Known, too, although with a new chip: although in the early days I’d written every line of code and designed the core mechanic, I hadn’t been the CEO of Elgg. What if I was? How would that feel? What other choices would be possible? As it turned out, it did not feel good, and I don’t think that particular chip was enough to hang a company off of. Elgg introduced the idea of social media to a higher education context - and then NGOs, followed by corporations. Known didn’t really break any new ground; I wonder now if I just wanted to see what happened if I did it again in a different context. I met people through both projects, but one felt like a company - something that could, theoretically, grow and live beyond me - and the other was always just a project. The personal resonance that Elgg had for me could be felt by others. It’s not that Known wasn’t meaningful for me, but Elgg was on another level, in part because I was in another place in my life.

My next project is a book, not a software product. I’m unapologetic about that. I’m sure I will build another software platform afterwards; I think, eventually, I may even have another startup in me. But regardless of the form or the nature of the project, I think that personal resonance really matters. People notice if you’re just trying to make either a point or a buck; if it’s something that really matters to you, that will come through in the quality of your work, the conviction of your arguments, and the time and effort you spend on it. We’re all human, and creating work that resonates with each other is the best we can hope to do.

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