Saturday, 2 August 2008

Just why are Flickr's online communities so good?

I've been agonising over how newspapers can build successful online communities in a couple recent posts, notably here. And while I don't want to drone on, I'm returning to the subject as I forgot about one flourishing website/newspaper/audience collaboration that's doing just fine, thanks very much.

The Liverpool Daily Post's Flickr 08 group was set up by the Post & Echo's digital editor, David Higgerson, before he was spirited away to do Great Things at a strategic level, and he handed the responsibility to me... which is why I've started noticing just what an amazing place it is.

The Flickr group is everything you could want from an online community: Interesting; informative; collaborative; encouraging; supportive; constructively critical; self-policing - I could go on but you get the picture. (Sorry! couldn't resist that one...)

So why does this group exist so amicably when other online spaces can be waspish, unhappy or downright mean places to visit?
Certainly shared interest is a major factor - these are people who love photography, love the photographic opportunities presented by the North West and love sharing their work with others.
Football fan networks tend to have the same sort of mutual desire to broadly get along, but footie followers seem more likely to fire off a snarling ripostes to a post they disagree with.
On Flickr the comments tend to be either praise or requests for technical information. I've noticed the same thing on interest-specific channels like this one on YouTube.

I think the fact that the Flickr community as a whole is so keen to interact with each other is something to be considered too; for example, many admins visit other groups, spotting shots they think are exceptional and requesting permission to add them. I love the fact that various awards are given out on Flickr for excellent work, and that users are generous with feedback and advice.

The discussion threads are also great opportunities for focused and supportive debates. On the Daily Post group a single post asking whether there should be an upload limit became a useful debate about the issue, culminating in a decision. I got the impression from reading the thread that members felt some users were uploading more images than strictly necessary, but it was all 'no names, no pack drill'.
If that had been a similar debate on a newspaper forum I suspect it would have been derailed by arguments by the third post.

So maybe one of the keys to running a successful newspaper general interest forum is to not run a forum... it's to run several. Most papers will already have football forums - should we now extend that niche approach to news? Poltical forums, crime forums, social issues, health - pick a topic, seed it with stories and links and see if people want to discuss it.

If debates do begin there's no reason why a moderator shouldn't post something along the lines of 'Nice point, X, I think there's more information about it through this link... what do others think?' It just shows that the debate is being monitored by someone who has half-an-eye on people's conduct, and who recognises valuable and interesting comments.

If one of the topic-specific forums doesn't flourish then maybe it's being done better by someone else, somewhere else. And I believe that with Web 2.0 it's a real case of 'if you can't beat'em, join 'em' - reporters should get involved with the debate where people are talking and link back while posting comments there.
That's when a forum starts to become a useful network. And that, I think, is why Flickr is so successful.
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