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Broken Windows Theory and Your Web Site

I’ve lived in a neighborhood with broken windows and I believe in broken windows theory. The theory says that a broken window that is left unfixed can quickly encourage more crime and vandalism because it sends a message of apathy to everyone that sees it.

I first read about the theory in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point. In the book, he shows how New York City used this theory to combat crime in the 80’s and 90's. They found that small things like keeping the subways free of graffiti (Amazon look inside a book) and stopping the fare jumpers helped combat crime because these small actions related a sense of caring as opposed to apathy. It signaled that the city was taking the subway back. Criminals were less likely to act out in an environment that was cared-for -- and caring for the subways helped stamp out crime by fixing the “broken windows�?.

As the book says, critics viewed these practices like scrubbing the decks of the Titanic as it was going down.

Also from Gladwell:

Broken Windows was the brainchild of the criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. Wilson and Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes.

Since reading about the theory, I’ve been thinking about it in terms of web sites, especially social ones. On online communities, weblogs, wikis, etc. visitors thrive on the feeling that the site is well cared-for and they can often sense whether or not the environment is welcoming.

Visiting a social web site with broken links, misleading navigation, missing images, etc. is like visiting a neighborhood with broken windows- you get the feeling that no one cares. Broken windows do not promote return visits.

If you’re trying to create a community around your web site, I think you really have to consider this theory because it prompts you look at the value of the small and seemingly inconsequential problems on your site. By considering the ways that small problems can multiply a feeling of apathy, you may find that your time is better-spent fixing broken windows as opposed to building new houses.

This being said, if you find any broken windows on my site, please let me know. I'd hate to sit down one day to find that my site had been vandalized by a roaming band of window breakers.