Building communities

George Oates and Denise Wilton on stage talking about community. George, principal designer of Flickr, discussed the origins of the site which started out life as an application with network interaction. It migrated to the web to take account of asynchonous requirements of the user base, but she says they are thinking of adding back the messaging functionality in the future. It was a game-based environment (with about 10,000 players) which sounds remarkably like the way that Facebook is developing. It migrated to photosharing when the company began to run out of money.

Denis talks about b3ta: “we started with what is now called viral content, but what was then called fucking around”. We did things to the site to make sure people understand what we are about.

How does Flickr do this? The staff would watch what was going on the site and help out if they could see someone was struggling. The staff would add these as friends so that at least they knew someone. We always tried to make it obvious that there were humans here – down to labelling the buttons. Flickr has 10 million users and there are over one billion pictures on the site. Keeping the human face on the site is more and more difficult as the site gets bigger. Flickr users act as hosts.

Denise says people underestimate the hard work involved in building the community and making it develop in the way it was intended. “My biggest contribution was sitting day after day writing posts and steering people in the right direction.” The way that you present the site – visual design and writing – very much dictates it’s direction.

George: When a community really takes off there are users who take on the same language of the site and help to guide and police it.

George: “We have a long history of zero user testing”. Now Flickr uses the blog and forum topics to open up discussion about the new features. The feedback is very strong.

Denise: What do you do if people rebel?

George: We persevere. We try hard not to release shit code.

Denise: You have to remember that there are people on the community which spend more time on it than you. You are not the boss, you are the guardian.

Geoge: You move from host to steward. When things go wrong it is really important to apologise for that.

What is the difference between on- and offline communites? asks Denise. Less and less as Flickr gets bigger, says George, though the main thing is speed.

Denise cautions against responding to flaming in the same tone as the users do. “Walk away from the computer and calm down.”

Flickr is about to launch a geographical based version of “interestingness”.

George wraps up: keep taking photos.

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