A List Apart


Community: From Little Things, Big Things Grow

Community: From Little Things, Big Things Grow

People don’t like being told what to do. We like to explore, change things around, and make a place our own. Hefty design challenges await the makers of websites where people feel free to engage; both with the system itself and with each other. Embrace the idea that people will warp and stretch your site in ways you can’t predict—they’ll surprise you with their creativity and make something wonderful with what you provide.

Article Continues Below

At Flickr, we’ve worked very hard to remain neutral while our members jostle and collide and talk and whisper to each other. Sharing photos is practically a side-effect. Our members have thrilled and challenged us—not just with their beautiful photography, but by showing us how to use our infrastructure in ways we could have never imagined.

It’s only in hindsight and with analysis that the strategies I share in this article have emerged.

A space for play

Amy Franceschini is one of my favorite artists. In 2002, she created a sculpture called Game for the Masses, her “Intro to Game Theory.” In game play, players distribute all the “pucks” evenly. Whoever manages to collect all the pucks wins. That’s it.

The game was positioned in a gallery with a small set of rules and instructions, but the game was left open for development. Over the course of the night, the game developed into a multi-player, three-dimensional, architectural, gambling, building site for ages three and up. (Source: Futurefarmers.)

The sculpture demonstrated a fascinating idea: given fewer rules, people actually behaved in more creative, co-operative, and collaborative (or competitive, as the case may be) ways.

If you imagine Flickr as something like Game for the Masses—a playing field without rules or a “way to play”—you can see how people can learn to engage with one another through conversations about their content.

Flickr groups are the center of gameplay, from prosaic groups about specific cameras or photography techniques all the way to weird, esoteric groups such as In Numerical Order, where members must add pictures taken of numbers in the real world in—you guessed it— numerical order. There’s the gaggle of “Guess Where” groups in which members take mysterious photos of places in their town and other members identify where each shot was taken. The fabulous wardrobe_remix group’s 6,000 members photograph their outfits and describe them for the world. Interestingly, the rules of this group evolved over time to maintain the group’s own attention. The group spawned other remix groups like Blythe Doll—Wardrobe Remix and even wardrobe_remix BABY. There is seemingly no limit to our endless need to share, to be creative, and imitate other people. All these groups coalesced without any input from the Flickr team.

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.

Help people explore

It’s easy to get lost on Flickr. You click from here to there, this to that, then suddenly you look up and notice you’ve lost hours. Allow visitors to cut their own path through the place and they’ll curate their own experiences. The idea that every Flickr visitor has an entirely different view of its content is both unsettling, because you can’t control it, and liberating, because you’ve given control away. Embrace the idea that the site map might look more like a spider web than a hierarchy. There are natural links in content created by many, many different people. Everyone who uses a site like Flickr has an entirely different picture of it, so the question becomes, what can you do to suggest the next step in the display you design?

Anonymity vs identity

Identity is a crucial part of social software systems, but it can (and should) take time for an identity to reveal itself. Certainly, you can be invited to join an existing community by a friend—and that’s something we specifically designed for—but, even then, when you start to reach out from your “safety blanket,” your own identity comes to the fore. What do you do when you first hear of a new site to visit? I don’t know about you, but generally I’ll head on over and perhaps even sign up. As I poke around, I’m essentially anonymous. I have no ties to anyone or anything, and am free to move about without any recognition. This anonymity is important. It allows a new visitor to look around and get a feel for the place, and choose when and how to get started.

Over time on Flickr, members who continue to appear anonymous (only favoriting other people’s photos while posting none of their own, or using the site without adding contacts) are often treated with some suspicion by other members. Identity and connections appear to have social value.

There’s a fine line between a rule and a guideline

There came a point, in about May of 2005, when we realized that we needed guidelines that could help to do the work that we were able to do on a 1:1 basis in the early days. Flickr was simply too big to maintain the “high touch” strategy that served us in the beginning. With scale comes the opportunity for more misunderstandings, collisions, and disagreements.

We needed a way to represent the culture of the place. So, as I sat on a train for several mornings with Heather Champ, Flickr’s very own community manager, we tossed back and forth The Thirteen-Or-So Commandments. Of course, they weren’t actually commandments, but rather guidelines that we wanted all our new members to at least skim. My personal favorite—”Don’t Be Creepy: You know the guy. Don’t be that guy.”—is something a lawyer would never write, and yet it speaks volumes. The other important point is that the “commandments” were designed to be open to interpretation, not to be conclusive. Writing guidelines like this is a great exercise for any team—it encourages reflection about the sort of culture you’re trying to foster.


This is the real nugget of successful online communities. It’s the sheer breadth of places like Flickr that keep people coming back, and keep people participating. There’s no way to design all things for all people. When you’re dealing with The Masses, it’s best to try to facilitate behavior, rather than to predict it. Design, in this context, becomes more about showing what’s possible than showing what’s there. Imagine your site as a “Game for the Masses” where you don’t make the rules. Leave your members to negotiate and communicate and you’ll get a much richer result.

Be open

Participate in the community you’re trying to build. Add content, make contact, show yourself as a person and have fun. It took me a while to get used to, but now I love and appreciate that when I meet someone who uses Flickr for the first time, they might mention a part of my life that they’ve seen in a photo. I’m part of the team who built the place, but I’m also addicted to Flickr itself.


As the Flickr community continues to expand, it seems to operate more like a society. Communities on Flickr are just like the communities we belong to offline. They’re small groups of people who know each other or share a specific interest, and whose members want to participate, not only as contributors but also as consumers. As my own distance from each member increases, and influence over their path into the system is basically removed, I see Flickr itself becoming simply an infrastructure to the communities we support. They look after themselves, as well as their induction of new members. Flickr becomes about uptime, speed, and flexibility—almost detaching the things we build from the content itself and people’s interaction with it.

I want to say something cheesy about teaching people to fish, but will refrain. Treat your place like your home: welcome people, fix them a drink and make them feel comfortable. Before you know it, your guests will be chatting amongst themselves, the party will be pumping, and people will be making plans together.

About the Author

22 Reader Comments

Load Comments