Jordan Koschei jordan koschei

Building an Online Community

You are the framer of the Constitution in this world that you are building. You are the Abraham in the series of begats.

I’m a big fan of Reid Hoffman’s podcast, Masters of Scale. In the most recent episode, featuring Caterina Fake (of Flickr fame), they discuss how cultures form in online communities. Social networks become their own “civilizations,” and the founder is “the Abraham in the series of begats,” carving out the culture and mores which will define the community.

Masters of Scale title card

This idea has been on my mind a lot since I launched the Hudson Valley Talentbase. The early tone of the community sets the tone for the entire project — attract trolls early, and it becomes a platform for trolls. Shut them down, and they’ll congregate elsewhere.

Talentbase is still young, and there are only a handful of users that I’d consider “active,” but I’m already seeing the seeds of what the community could become. Some users are engaging with the platform in interesting and unintended ways — using the “Post Your Work” feature to post nascent ideas, for instance, or using it as a blogging function. The norms are already being set. I’m no longer the one controlling the experience — I’m just setting up the framework and watching how users interact within.

My fear of setting the wrong tone early was part of the reason I first launched it as an invite-only platform. I wanted the initial population to be made up of people I trusted, and the people they trusted, so that I could establish Talentbase as a place to showcase high-quality work and have high-quality conversation. Hearing two well-pedigreed social media founders discuss this exact idea is validating.

Some other ideas I found interesting from the episode:

  • Towards the beginning of Flickr, there was a large userbase in the United Arab Emirates, but also a large number of photos of Britney Spears with a bare midrif. Those turned out to be mutually exclusive populations — by allowing the midrif photos to continue, Flickr caused their UAE userbase to migrate elsewhere.
  • There’s no such thing as an objective platform. Every online community stands for something, based on the rules it chooses to enforce, but only some communities know what they stand for.
  • Every founder of a social network understands what lines can’t be crossed. Only some of them vocalize those boundaries and codify them for the rest of the community.
  • Near the beginning of Flickr, Caterina Fake made a point of greeting each new member personally. This is a great idea for making a community feel personal (though I’d be tempted to automate the initial contact, and then respond personally to those who answered.)

It’s food for thought for anyone starting an online community. What tone are we setting, and how will it propogate throughout the platform?