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.

Interesting stuff from around the web 2008-12-06

Online Identity just got really interesting and really competitive… lets hope the open stack wins not the proprietary

Biggest Battle Yet For Social Networks: You, Your Identity And Your Data On The Open Web
Facebook makes their big press push for their ‘Facebook Connect‘ service, MySpace have ‘Data Availability‘ and Google ‘Friend Connect‘. Sites that use these services make life a bit easier for them, but the real value goes to the social networks. These services make users begin to think about their identity in terms of their MySpace profile, or Facebook login as they use it to sign into their favorite services. That makes it even more likely the users will maintain their profiles on those services, add friends, etc. The real risk with Facebook is the proprietary login and data sharing standards, Myspace is so much better with its use of open standards including OpenID and their willingness to work with Google (Facebook have prohibited Google from getting in the middle).

Crime fighting team by ittybittiesforyou. Some rights reserved.
Crime fighting team by ittybittiesforyou. Some rights reserved.

David Recordon considers “Getting OpenID Into the Browser” [O’Reilly Radar]
Google Chrome did a smart thing: Less. They unified the search box and address bar, since that’s what people do anyway. That gives us back precious pixels for the only thing that’s as important to an average web user as where they’re going: Who they are. Identity belongs in the browser.

Some interesting thoughts on near future of the web

User Styling – bit of custom css and you can get the site to look the way you want [24 ways via @fantasticlife]
Override a publishers styling, remove ads whatever you like. It’s interesting to consider the implications of this if, as @fantasticlife suggests, this goes more mainstream since it will change the role of design – the publisher gives you the data you presented as you want it.

Going Hyper-Local – Location Based Internet [redcatco.com]
Fire Eagle, Flickr, Twitter, Dopplr, BrightKite and many more help you tell the web about where you are – and then find people near you.

The enterprise is about control and the web is about emergence but for how long? [O’Reilly Radar]
I suspect it’s more likely the result of large scale system dynamics, where the culture of control follows from other constraints. If multiverse advocates are right and there are infinite parallel universes, I bet most of them have IT enterprises just like ours; at least in those shards that have similar corporate IT boundary conditions. Once you have GAAP, Sarbox, domain-specific regulation like HIPAA, quarterly expectations from “The Street,” decades of MIS legacy, and the talent acquisition realities that mature companies in mature industries face, the strange attractors in the system will pull most of those shards to roughly the same place. In other words, the IT enterprise is about control because large businesses in mature industries are about control. On the other hand, the web is about emergence because in this time, place, and with this technology discontinuity, emergence is the low energy state.

The Future of Ephemeral Conversation [Schneier on Security]
The Internet is the greatest generation gap since rock and roll. We’re now witnessing one aspect of that generation gap: the younger generation chats digitally, and the older generation treats those chats as written correspondence. Until our CEOs blog, our Congressmen Twitter, and our world leaders send each other LOLcats – until we have a Presidential election where both candidates have a complete history on social networking sites from before they were teenagers– we aren’t fully an information age society.

Some photo stuff

LIFE photo archive hosted by Google
Search millions of photographs from the LIFE photo archive, stretching from the 1750s to today. Most were never published and are now available for the first time through the joint work of LIFE and Google.

Find Flickr photos my colour [Multicolr Search Lab]
They are extracting the colours from 10 million of the most “interesting” Creative Commons images on Flickr and then use “visual similarity technology” so you can navigate the collection by colour.

Some BBC stuff

BBC Programmes iPhone webapp experiment [Whomwah.com]
Another nice bit of hacking from Duncan – browse BBC TV and Radio schedules on your iPhone, the iPhone way – living further out of London with longer train journeys has improved his hacking output.

BBC builders: Tom Scott, and the team behind /programmes and /music [guardian.co.uk]
That’s me! Jemima Kiss has started interviewing folk at the BBC who are helping to build projects that people don’t hear about. She started with me, which was jolly nice.

Interesting stuff from around the web 2008-11-24

Google map of London with Flickr shape data overlaid by Matt Biddulph. Used under license.
Google map of London with Flickr shape data overlaid by Matt Biddulph. Used under license.

The Shape of Alpha – using mass data to reveal the perceived shape of geography [Code: Flickr Developer Blog]
“Plotted all the geotagged photos associated with a particular ‘Where On Earth ID’ (a database of places and bounding boxes, which describes the spatial hierarchy between places) to generate a mostly accurate contour of that place. Not a perfect representation, perhaps, but something more fine-grained than a bounding box.” How cool is that!?

Neighbourhood Boundaries [tomtaylor.co.uk]
Using the Flickr shapefiles to show you where the world thinks its neighbours are. Tom has written a bit about it here: “Of course, it’s not always right, so Flickr give you the option to override the place they guessed, with a more accurate name, as you perceive. For example, a photo taken near South Bank might better be described as Waterloo, or Embankment. Over time, this database leads to a more accurate representation of the shape and boundaries of the places in question, comprised of thousands of people photographs. Flickr are good enough to release this data in the form of shapefiles.”

The First 100 Days – what past US Presidents did in their first 100 days [goodmagazine.com]
Interesting to see how the first 100 days appear to be a good indicator for the tone and direction of the rest of the presidency. I now know what all Presidents and PMs should be made to answer “what will you do in your first 100 days”.

The BBC have hired a full time MusicBrainz server developer! [MusicBrainz Blog]
Just the sort of thing we should be doing. Helps the Web, helps the MuiscBrainz community and helps the BBC.

How to Price Your iPhone App out of Existence [Safe from the Losing Fight]
There will be an iPhone app bust. The current prices simply aren’t sustainable. Either developers will crash out of the market when they discover they can’t make a living off their current prices, or the gold rush developers will lose interest and leave when they realize they can’t make a quick buck off the store. The developers left standing will be the ones who set reasonable prices for their applications.

Users, Twits and Cameramen Under Fire [Nick Reynolds At Work]
Wise words from Nick – who continues the good fight in the war to kill of the UGC term. It is such a rude and self limiting term.

Life in the Linked Data Cloud – Calais Release 4 Coming Jan 09 [OpenCalais]
OpenCalais is to release its data as RDF and join it to the LOD cloud.

links for 2008-04-03

Flickr Places and URL geekery

Flickr have just launched Places – which is basically a way to explore Flickr via geo-specific pages. Each page includes a map of the area, the most interesting photos, a tag cloud, photo groups and, for towns, the current weather. But that’s not the most interesting thing about Places – the most interesting thing is how they implemented their URLs.

Flickr Places

Creating a good URL schema is not easy. As Michael, a colleague of mine, reminded me “good URLs should be persistent and hackable, but most importantly they need to be persistent”. This is because if you can’t reliable point to a resource you can’t join it to other things on the web, you can’t add context to the resource, you can’t manipulate it. And if you can’t do that then the webpage is no more than a piece of brochureware, it’s not a web 2.0 citizen.

Now the folks at Flickr have done a great job of creating persistent hackable URLs. What they have done is created a URL schema that looks like this:

flickr.com/places/:country/:territory/:city

Which for London is:

flickr.com/places/United+Kingdom/England/london

These URLs are easily hackable – for example you can get to the England page at this URL:

http://flickr.com/places/United+Kingdom/England/

Even if some of the URLs are a little US centric.

Now to pull this off is very impressive. As Dan Catt explains:

…turning essentially a record ID from the backend into something that a human can understand, and yet the backend can once more turn back into the same record ID wasn’t as easy as I thought it aught to be when we asked Kellan to do it : ) and lots of effort went into making it so.

Basically you have to ask the backend, where something is the ‘child-of’, to build the hierarchy. However as we don’t have full control of the backend you often get a city, let’s say London, belonging to a place called Greater London, which, as far as I can make out from the bounding box, is about 2 inches taller and wider than London. Or York (in England) belonging to something like Duke Elligton’s Marginal Lower Land Barrows of the Kidsworth Council Academic Elective Region. Because that particular piece of geographic data was extracted from the government’s parish records from 1895. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that some towns in England were a child of a mobile library’s service region.

Anyway, hidden away from me in a black box constructed by Kellan and Aaron is all the complex magic that works out what’s important and what to miss out.

All very impressive.

Facebook: new social network site; same old walled garden

Last year the buzz was around MySpace now its Facebook and before that Friends Reunited and Linkedin. I have to confess that I’ve never really grokked these services – I’ve played around with them a bit – but generally never really got that much out of them. Preferring to stick with email, IM, Flickr, del.icio.us and my blog.

Trends in Facebook, MySpace, Friends Reunited and Linkedin

The problem I’ve always faced with community sites, such as LinkedIn or Facebook, is that I’m never sure I want to maintain yet another online presence. I know that they provide tools to help bootstrap the site with data about your group of friends (importing contacts from your email account etc.) but there’s more to it than that. And in the back of my mind I know that all too soon there will be a new site out there doing more or less the same thing but with a twist that grabs everyone’s attention. And the reason this is a problem is, as Steve Rubel points outs, because they are walled gardens.

Despite the age of openness we live in, Facebook is becoming the world’s largest, and perhaps most successful, walled garden that exists today…

The problem, however, lies in this fact – Facebook gives nothing back to the broader web. A lot of stuff goes in, but nothing comes out. What happens in Facebook, stays in Facebook. As Robert Scoble noted, it’s almost completely invisible to Google. You can share only a limited amount of data on your public page – as he has here. That’s fine for many users, but not all.”

Walled gardens create barriers to getting information in and out of their system. This means that I know that I will need to go to extra effort to seed the site with information about me and my network; maintain duplicate information between different gardens as well as in the wild; and have difficultly getting data out and into something else. Walled gardens will always eventually die because they require that extra bit of effort, both from their community and, more widely, the developer community. As Jason Kottke notes like AOL before them Facebook’s walled garden approach places additional strain on the development community.

What happens when Flickr and LinkedIn and Google and Microsoft and MySpace and YouTube and MetaFilter and Vimeo and Last.fm launch their platforms that you need to develop apps for in some proprietary language that’s different for each platform? That gets expensive, time-consuming, and irritating. It’s difficult enough to develop for OS X, Windows, and Linux simultaneously… imagine if you had 30 different platforms to develop for.”

[what’s needed is]…Facebook inside-out, so that instead of custom applications running on a platform in a walled garden, applications run on the internet, out in the open, and people can tie their social network into it if they want, with privacy controls, access levels, and alter-egos galore.”

In other words we already have the platform – its the internet, in its raw, wild, untended form. And rather than trying to build walls around bits of it we should keep our content in the open, in applications such as Flickr, WordPress (other blogging software is also available) and email. But tie it all together into communities with technologies such as OpenID the “open, decentralized, free framework for user-centric digital identity” and Friend of a Friend (a project aimed at creating a Web of machine-readable pages describing people, the links between them and the things they create and do).

Indeed this approach is similar to that adopted in Plaxo 3.0 which now runs as a web service removing all reliance on Outlook. Plaxo now provides a synchronization and brokerage service between applications (e.g. Outlook or Apple’s Address Book) and services (AOL, Google) – your data is no longer within a walled garden but you do have access control over who can access your data.

Facebook is an amazing success – but like all walled gardens will eventually either die or be forced to open its garden gate and let the rest of the internet in (for example, let me replace the Facebook’s status application with Twitter, or Photos with Flickr). And in the meantime I’m happy to stick with my existing online presence.