Did you know that two of Web 2.0's biggest success stories - Flickr and Blogger - were never meant to be? Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr, and Meg Hourihan, co-founder of Pyra Labs and Blogger, shared tantalizing tales of hard work and serendipity with Marnie Webb of NetSquared at the recent BlogHer conference:
Fake started out by making an MMOG (massively multiplayer online game). Once back-end development fell behind front-end development, however, the front-end engineers ended up working on a fun side project for photo sharing. This was never intended to be a core offering - established sites such as Ofoto and Snapfish seemed to have a lock on the photo sharing market - but the Flickr audience grew like wildfire, and so the six-person team pulled the plug on the game.
The Flickr team spent a lot of time greeting every user that came to the site, offering them help on how to get engaged with the rest of the community. Through this, they discovered that online community-building is just like being the host of the party - if guests come to a party, and they don't know anyone, and no one shows up to take their coats and introduce them around, they'll leave. These social networking skills are essential practices to bake into community management. Eventually, you'll want people to identify enough with the community that they themselves will act as the community police, kicking out trolls and making new users feel welcome. This community will also provide much of the user education in a socially networked site - people tend to come once invited there by a friend for a specific purpose, so they come with some idea of what they will be able to do and how the site works.
If Flickr's designers had planned to design a photo sharing site from the beginning, they probably would not have anticipated how to meet with success. Flickr photo sharing was designed to support the MMOG envrironment, with the unique aspect that these photos were public. As it turns out, blogging and social networking sites also have demand for public photos, and these services drove incredible demand for Flickr. Fake noted that to this day, 80% of Flickr photos are public.
Blogger: great project management
Hourihan's team at Pyra Labs didn't expect that blogging would become such a phenomenon - particularly since blogging didn't exist when they started working on tools for project management. But as Hourihan said: "As it turned out, Web-based project management just isn't as much fun as blogging."
Like Flickr, Blogger is very different now from what it was originally. The team just put it out there, repeatedly changing the offering in response to user feedback. If you realize after a few days that users are having trouble with a page, you can respond to them immediately with changes. Fake's quip: "Beta is your friend."
Blogger's community also took an active role, driving the unprecedentedly quick internationalization of Blogger. The company's users clamored for Blogger interfaces in different languages. Since the company didn't have the resources for localization work, Hourihan offered to implement translations as users sent them in. This leverage of community resources, long the province of open source projects, is what enabled Blogger to become an international brand as a small company.
From the functional side, there is a focus on video. Cheaper, easier editing tools have made it possible for almost anyone to work with rich content. Blogging made it possible for people to reference just a portion of a page, and made it possible to break down content into its disparate text components. Flickr takes it down another level, making it possible to reference just a portion of a picture. Ideally, interactivity in rich media will be next.
Just as blogging helps an individual to distribute their words, tagging enables someone to discover and tap into information that she never thought that she would find. Fake called out that tagging enables the formation of ad-hoc communities that you never expected would exist, "much less be able to find." This is most exciting, in that what rises to the top is often unexpected.
Management techniques for these ad-hoc communities are now emerging. Wikipedia separates community management from troll management. (Disclosure note: Omidyar Network is an investor in Wikia, a related entity.) Fake appreciates that the Wikipedia community handles any punitive measures needed to discipline users, while automated systems are used to control trolls and, more importantly, spam. Hourihan agrees that an ideal scenario is for everyone to share the burden of community management. For example, Blogger never expected spam to show up via comments and trackbacks. Spammers will always surprise developers with what they exploit, and so the community's participation becomes essential.
All of these women agreed that the return to blogging and other social media is a return to the Web's roots. The Internet was originally designed as a two-way communications medium, so one could say that all of the broadcast content and brochureware was a detour. And though communication and connection have always been the backbone of the Internet, it has become increasingly global, and that is starting to make a difference.