May 16

How Flickr Built Its Online Community…

Very interesting article on the house that Flickr built, by Flickr team member, George Oates…

Excerpt

Although cultural differences and personal prejudices about The Way Things Should Be have challenged us at FlickrHQ, we never mediate group dynamics: our members must be left to their own devices. Any time you construct specific rules of engagement, they are instantly open to interpretation and circumvention, and we want our members to negotiate their place with each other, not with The Authority.

Steady, careful growth

Any community—online or off—must start slowly, and be nurtured. You cannot “just add community.” It simply must happen gradually. It must be cared for, and hosted; it takes time and people with great communication skills to set the tone and tend the conversation.

When Flickr was born, Caterina Fake and I spent many hours greeting new members personally. We opened up chat windows with each new visitor to say “Hi! I work here, and I’d love to help you get started, if you have any questions.” We also provided public forums where staff were present and interactive. Those decisions proved crucial, because apart from creating points where we could inject a certain culture, it was all so personal.

If you want to stir your audience on a rapidly growing community site, take advantage of what we learned—hire a community manager. Or two. You’ll need a clever communicator with a lot of experience being online to help welcome people and provide ongoing support as your community grows. Show your personality and be available. Flickr’s tone is not necessarily suitable for every community, but the point is, the tone is evident everywhere you look.

Personal voice, unobtrusive design

I adore it when people tell me that Flickr makes them feel a certain way. From the outset, I worked hard to make the site seem as if there was a person behind the screen talking to you. As we churned out pages to piece the site together, I obsessed about copy all over the place to make Flickr sound human. From the labels on submit buttons—“Get in there!” to log in, to the copy that shows up if something goes wrong—“Forgotten your password? Don’t worry. It happens to the best of us,” or “An empty comment box? That won’t work!” Exclamations like Yay! Woo! Bonk! Rock! Yee har! make people feel like they’re progressing and doing things well.

We consciously chose to make the site design appear plain and simple, despite its deep complexity. A white background, blue links, sans-serif font, and largely gray palette all present the site as a straightforward place. The look of the place must never overwhelm the photos themselves. We also tried to create an egalitarian playing field. At a glance, visitors can’t differentiate a professional photographer with an enormous lens from an enthusiast just getting started in photography. There is no indication of “quality” apart from the content itself. That also means that it’s up to the viewer to decide for themselves which photos they like to look at and explore without prejudice.

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