The gift of virtual crabs is a signpost to the future of tradable app features

16.05, Tuesday 22 Nov 2022

Iiiiit’s follow-up week. New words about old posts. Drop me a note if there’s something from the archives that you want an update on.

Re: Apps are too complex so maybe features should be ownable and tradable (2022).

Let me summarise the post: features in an app are the things you get in menus, like the ability to insert a table, or a funny face filter. A feature flag is an engineering term for being able to enable/disable these features user by user. For example, during testing you might use feature flags to enable the “edit tweet” feature for only 1% of users, to see if it works ok.

But what if your users could buy and sell their feature flags?

So what if you’re collaborating with your lawyer in Google Docs, and you can see from their avatar that they have the “Track Changes” feature flag activated?

Because you’re in the same doc, you can use it together.

And maybe if you want to use it again, they can just… gift it to you?

Could app feature flags be tradable and giftable? That would answer the discovery problem and the “store” problem.

The discoverability problem = there were 4,000 commands in Office 2003, and most people only used two. 20 years on and menus for desktop applications are a mess, and mobile apps aren’t much better – we don’t know what our applications can even do, let alone where to find the commands. But with multiplayer apps, you might discover features when you see other people using them… and then they could gift you the feature. And you can keep it for later.

Keep the feature where? I ended up going a bit deeper on this area during my summer project (it is uncertain whether this will see the light of day) – the metaphor we hit on was pockets! Here’s a teeny glimpse of being gifted a feature and it ending up in my pocket.

Having tried it: giftable, pocketable features are awesome fun.

AND SO I was recently super excited to run across TumblrMart.

The social media/blogging platform Tumblr has a built-in shop. Here’s the FAQ. It’s excitingly early days:

  • Right now, TumblrMart products can only be purchased as gifts for other people on Tumblr.
  • Right now, TumblrMart has two items in stock: 24 hours of Dashboard Crabs and Ad-Free Browsing (you can choose to buy a month or a year).

(That FAQ also has screenshots.)

Dashboard Crabs?? It’s the gift of a button.

users must activate their crabs by clicking or tapping the “Summon Crab!” button that will become visible to them at the top of their dashboard.

What happens when you summon? From that first FAQ…

When you’re gifted crabs, you’ll have 24 hours of crab access, beginning once you’ve acknowledged the gift. …

Click a crab to catch it. Hover over a crab 10 times and it deems you a friend. Hover over a crab 25 or more times and watch it fall in love with you. Click the “Summon crab” button to generate more and more crabs. Have fun with it. When you’re done, you’ll have the option to publish a post with information about how many crabs you caught, summoned, and how many became your friends or fell in love with you. A “group picture” with all of your crabs will be added to your post, too.

(You can now also purchase Important Blue Internet Checkmarks from TumblrMart to display on your blog. You get two for $7.99 and they stack, so if your friends think you are extra important you can have like 30.)

Three things I love about TumblrMart:

  1. It’s about gifting
  2. It’s about features not decoration. The recipient gets a button!
  3. It’s real money

Also it’s bonkers.

Two things I think TumblrMart would be even better with:

  1. Re-giftable gifts – don’t want to hit the Summon Crabs button yourself? Give it to someone else. Now they have it, and you don’t
  2. Publicly visible, multiplayer gifts – the Summon Crabs button is just for me. But what if it was for every visitor to my blog? Place the crabs on my homepage and they become a reason to visit me – worth investing in if I want the attention. Maybe even make catching them collaborative and realtime, with cursors chasing round the page. That would make TumblrMart goods socially discoverable. I would find out about new giftable features in the normal course of keeping up with my friends.

I guess what I’m saying is that TumblrMart is 50% of the way there. Now wouldn’t it be cool to embrace the objectness of these giftable features.

There’s a startup in this.

By which I mean to say: if you created an easy-to-integrate API for purchasable feature flags, wrapping Stripe to take care of transactions, that’s basically a plug-in monetisation layer for any other consumer/SME startup that wants it. Include a hosted store. They all use feature flags already. It would save them a bunch of work.

Then ensure the purchased features have serial numbers – embrace objecthood; make them ownable and giftable; make some objects consumable and other objects scarce; give pockets to users. It sounds like a heavy metaphor but it’s really not, it’s Stripe Treasury for intangible goods plus the move that adds social discoverability in the era of multiplayer apps, all with a friendly face.

And although we started off talking about crabs I also mean purchasing a stenographer feature in Zoom if you’re a project manager, or gifting AI in-painting fuel for my favourite Instagram artist. Because all of that is what this enables.

Huh that would be fun to build.

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