Online communities are about people stupid

Flickr, Twitter and Facebook all work because they are primarily about people. Photos, status updates, messages and comments are all secondary, they are the social glue that help make the community work. And if you doubt me then consider this – Heather Powazek Champ, the Director of Community at Flickr has reported that:

People have fallen in love on Flickr. Some have proposed over Flickr. It’s just a delightful thing for so many people, and I get to spend my days with them.

Liverpool Street station crowd blur. By David Sims, some rights reserved.
Liverpool Street station crowd blur. By David Sims, some rights reserved.

Flickr is about the social nature of photography. Strangers meet online to comment on each others’ photography, form and join groups based on common interests and share photos that document and categorize the visible world. Likewise Twitter isn’t simply a stream of the world’s consciousness, it’s a semi-overlapping stream of activity – some public, some private and some semi-public.

It seems to me that it is the semi-public, semi-overlapping aspects that make services like Flickr and Twitter work so well because they help reinforce the social. Consider the alternative: YouTube for all it’s success as a video uploading and publishing service it is a mess when it comes to its community. In fact there’s no community, there are just banal comments which often don’t get much better than “LOL”.

Flickr on the other hand doesn’t try to be an all purpose photo publishing service, it’s a photo-sharing service primarily aimed at sharing photos with your friends, family and others with a common interest. That’s not to say that there isn’t also a public sharing aspect to Flickr; indeed most of the photos on this blog (including the one used in this post) are from Flickr, and in the main, from people I don’t know. There is a public aspect to Flickr, just as there is a public aspect to Twitter, but these aren’t the primary use cases. The primary use cases are those associated with the semi-public: finding and connecting to friends; sharing photos, ideas and your thoughts with friends, that sort of thing.

The semi-public nature of these services also means that the community can, and does, develop and enforce community rules. With Flickr these are site-wide rules, as Heather Powazek Champ puts it:

“We don’t need to be the photo-sharing site for all people. We don’t need to take all comers. It’s important to me that Flickr was built on certain principles.” And so they’re defended — and evaluated — constantly.

With Twitter the rules are more personal, more contextual and as a result so are the communities. You get to choose who you follow and only those people are then part of your timeline. If you don’t follow someone then you won’t be bothered with their updates (and they can’t direct message you).

This shouldn’t be surprising since this is pretty much what happens in the real world. You have networks of friends whose conversations overlap, and whose conversations are sometimes held in private and sometimes semi-public.

So what’s all this mean? Well for one thing it means that unless you want banal comments and no real community you need to build people into your service as primary objects, rather than treating their comments, content and stuff as primary objects. You also need to work out how to allow semi-overlapping activity streams. It also probably means that you shouldn’t design for ‘user generated content’ since this will tend to make you think about the user’s content rather than the people and their community.

Media companies should embrace the generative nature of the web

Generativity, the ability to remix different pieces of the web or deploy new code without gatekeepers (so that anyone can repurpose, remix or reuse the original content or service for a different purpose) is going to be at the heart of successful media companies.

Depth of field (Per Foreby)

As Jonathan Zittrain points out in The Future of the Internet (and how to stop it) the web’s success is largely because it is a generative platform.

The Internet is also a generative system to its very core as is each and every layer built upon this core. This means that anyone can build upon the work of those that went before them – this is why the Internet architecture, to this day, is still delivering decentralized innovation.

This is true at a technological level, for example, XMPP, OAuth and OpenID are all technologies that have been invented because the technology layers upon which they are built are open, adaptable and easy for others to reuse and master. It is also true at the content level – Wikipedia is only possible because it is built as a true web citizen, likewise blogging platforms and services such as MusicBrainz – these services allow anyone to create or modify content without the need for strict rules and controls.

But what has this got to do with the success or otherwise of any media company or any content publisher? After all just because the underlying technology stack is generative doesn’t mean that what you build must be generative. There are, after all, plenty of successful walled gardens and tethered appliances out there. The answer, in part, depends on what you believe the future of the Web will look like.

Tim Berners-Lee presents a pretty compelling view in his article on The Giant Global Graph. In it he explains how the evolution of the Internet has seen a move from a network of computers, through the Internet, to a  web of documents and we are now seeing a migration to a ‘web of concepts’.

[The Internet] made life simpler and more powerful. It made it simpler because of having to navigate phone lines from one computer to the next, you could write programs as though the net were just one big cloud, where messages went in at your computer and came out at the destination one. The realization was, “It isn’t the cables, it is the computers which are interesting”. The Net was designed to allow the computers to be seen without having
to see the cables. […]

The WWW increases the power we have as users again. The realization was “It isn’t the computers, but the documents which are interesting”. Now you could browse around a sea of documents without having to worry about which computer they were stored on. Simpler, more powerful. Obvious, really. […]

Now, people are making another mental move. There is realization now, “It’s not the documents, it is the things they are about which are important”. Obvious, really.

If you believe this, if you believe that there is a move from a web of documents to concepts, then you can start to see why media companies will need to start to publish data the right way. Publishing it so that they, and others, can help people find the things they are interested in. How does this happen then? For starters we need a mechanism by which we can identify things and identify the relationship between them – at a level above that of the document. And that’s just what the semantic web technologies are for – they allow different organisations a common way of describing the relationship between things. For example, the Programmes Ontology allows any media company to describe the nature of a programme; the music ontology any artist, release or label.

This implies a couple of different, but related things, firstly it highlights the importance of links. Links are an expression of a person’s interests. I choose what to link to from this blog – which words, which subjects to link from and where to – my choice of links provide you with a view onto how I view the subject beyond what I write here. The links give you insight into who I trust and what I read. And of course it allows others to aggregate my content around those subjects.

It also implies that we need a common way of doing things. A way of doing things that allows others to build with, on top of, the original publishers content. This isn’t about giving up your rights over your content, rather it is about letting it be connected to content from peer sites. It is about joining contextually relevant information from other sites, other applications. As Tim Berners-Lee points out this is similar to the transition we had to make in going from interconnected computers to the Web.

People running Internet systems had to let their computer be used for forwarding other people’s packets, and connecting new applications they had no control over. People making web sites sometimes tried to legally prevent others from linking into the site, as they wanted complete control of the user experience, and they would not link out as they did not want people to escape. Until after a few months they realized how the web works. And the re-use kicked in. And the payoff started blowing people’s minds.

Because the Internet is a generative system it means it has a different philosophy from most other data discovery systems and APIs (including some that are built with Internet technologies), as Ed Summers explains:

…which all differ in their implementation details and require you to digest their API documentation before you can do anything useful. Contrast this with the Web of Data which uses the ubiquitous technologies of URIs and HTTP plus the secret sauce of the RDF triple.

They also often require the owner of the service or API to give permission for third parties to use those services, often mediated via API keys. This is bad, had the Web or the Internet before that adopted a similar approach, rather than the generative approach it did take, we would not have seen the level of innovation we have; and as a result we would not have had the financial, social and political benefits we have derived from it.

Of course there are plenty of examples of where people have been able to work with the web of documents – everything from 800lb gorilla’s like Google through to sites like After Our Time and Speechification – both provide users with a new and distinctive service while also helping to drive traffic and raise brand awareness to the BBC. Just think what would also be possible if transcripts, permanent audio, and research notes where also made available not only as HTML but also as RDF joining content inside and outside the BBC to create a system which, in Zittrain words, provides “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.”

Interesting stuff from around the web 2008-09-21

Eadward Muybridge’s 1878 investigation into whether horses’ feet were actually all off the ground at once during a trot.
Eadward Muybridge’s 1878 investigation into whether horses’ feet were actually all off the ground at once during a trot.

Born To Run – Human Evolution [DISCOVER Magazine]
Biomechanical research reveals a surprising key to the survival of our species: Humans are built to outrun nearly every other animal on the planet over long distances.

Prisoner’s Dilemma Visualisation [James Alliban]
Nice visualisation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (a classic example of game theory) using Processing.

More Google news

Google Visualization API [Google Code]
The Google Visualization API lets you access multiple sources of structured data that you can display, choosing from a large selection of visualizations.

GAudi – Google’s new audio index [Official Google Blog]
It’s currently in Google Labs and is restricted to content from political sources but it still looks interesting. In addition to being able to search for terms you can also jump directly to the point in the video where the keyword is mentioned.

The social web: All about the small stuff [Official Google Blog]
The promise of the social web is about making it easy to share the small stuff – to make it effortless and rebuild that feeling of connectedness that comes from knowing the details.

More background on Matt’s hack: streaming content to iTunes

Things to do with /programmes #431: iTunes! [BBC Radio Labs]
Matt’s write up of his work on streaming iPlayer content through iTunes.

Very surprised the blog sphere hasn’t picked up on the implications of this hack but there you go.