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.

UGC its rude, its wrong and it misses the point

Despite recent reports that blogging is dead traditional media companies are still rushing to embrace UGC – User Generated Content – and in many ways that’s great. Except User Generated Content is the wrong framing and so risks failing to deliver the benefits it might. I also find it a rather rude term.

Graffiti

Newspapers and media companies are all trying to embrace UGC — they are blogging and letting folk comment on some of their articles — and if Adam Dooley of snoo.ws is right with good reason, he suggests that UGC might be saving the newspapers.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that this [growth in] popularity has come since many papers have embraced both the Internet’s immediacy (real time news is the thing) and its ability to foster debate and discussion with readers. It’s also come since major papers such as the New York Times have taken the locks off their content making most or all of it free online.

But depressingly UGC is also seen by some as no more than a way to get content on the cheap from a bunch of mindless amateurs, geeks and attention seekers. This view and indeed the very term itself helps to create a dichotomy between professional journalists and the like on one side and everybody else on the other. As Scott Karp points out:

There is a revolution in media because people who create blogs and MySpace pages ARE publishers, and more importantly, they are now on equal footing with the “big,” “traditional” publishers. There has been a leveling of the playing field that renders largely meaningless the distinction between “users” and “publishers” — we’re all publishers now, and we’re all competing for the finite pie of attention. The problem is that the discourse on trends in online media still clings to the language of “us” and “them,” when it is all about the breakdown of that distinction.

Sure most bloggers don’t have the audience of the online newspapers and media companies and there are plenty of people who, as the New Scientist article points out, are simply attention seekers. But that still doesn’t make them ‘users’ and nor does it mean that they’re ‘generating content’ anymore than any other publisher – indeed one might argue that they are less ‘content generators’ than professional journalists. As I sit here writing this post am I a user? If I am I have no idea what I’m using other than WordPress, and if I am then so must journalists be users of their CMS. I know one thing for sure, I don’t think of myself as a user of someone’s site and I don’t create content for them. I suspect most people are the same.

Bloggers, those that contribute to Wikipedia, or otherwise publish content on the Web are amateur publishers — in the same way that amateur sportsmen and women are amateur athletes, whatever their ability — until they give up their day job. But that doesn’t necessarily make them any less knowledgeable about the subject they are writing about. Indeed an ‘amateur publisher’ might well know much more about the subject they are writing about than a professional journalist because they have direct person experience of their subject matter. Whether that be a technical blog by someone who helps make the technology, a news story written on Wikinews or BreakingNewsOn by someone that was there and experienced the events being written about, or even the man that invented the Web. Are any of these people doing UGC? I don’t know what they think – but I know that when I write for this blog, or upload a photo to Flickr – I don’t think I’m generating user content, I’m not doing UGC.

It seems to me that newspapers and media companies need to work to understand how amateur publishers and others can contribute. Not that that is easy — the best bloggers know their subject inside-out, more so than any professional journalist — but equally there is plenty of drivel out there, in both the amateur and professional spheres. For sure there are dreadful blogs, YouTube is full of inane video and fatuous comments but equally partisan news outlets like Fox News, the Daily Mail present biased, misleading and often downright inaccurate reporting. In the week of the US Presidential Elections it is worth considering whether Barack Obama’s use of the Internet — including the role of amateur publishers, UGC if you like — helped dull the effect of such biased news reporting which has historically had a significant role.

The trick then is to find the best content, whoever has written it, and bring it to the fore for people to read and debate. To understand what it is about the Web that makes it an effective communication medium and to harness that in whatever way that that makes sense for each context. Considering the Web in the same patronising fashion as the Culture and Media Secretary Andy Burnham does, that is as “…an excellent source of casual opinion” fails to recognise the value that debate and discussion can bring to a subject.

links for 2008-04-18