SXSW Day Two – People-Powered Products

The last panel I saw on Sunday was “People-Powered Products.

It was moderated by Jason Levitt (Yahoo! Developer Network) and included:

Aside from the humorous bits (the bored balloon clown), it was interesting to see a discussion full of people whose products truly are people powered in the most basic sense. They are not communities which were built up on “professional” content and then opened – what a lot of large media companies are trying to do these days – but built “from a blank screen” out of unpaid user contributions.

They started by sharing the deep links in the panel’s history – Levitt’s at Yahoo, Flickr is owned by Yahoo!, Heather (who works at Flickr) is cofounder of JPG magazine, Derek publishes JPG Magazine (and Derek and Heather are married), JPG magazine started out published through Lulu (before going on to do offset print runs on their own), and JamGlue would like to be owned by Yahoo!.

Some of the most interesting discussion was around the unintended uses people have for the tools, and the unexpected issues that arise in a community driven, people powered site.

For example, Matt talked about how JamGlue had been originally designed “for people like us” – but that their user base includes a lot of young, hip-hop influenced, rappers and remixers – who have a completely different understanding of what “tagging” means – and they have been tagging each other – just writing stuff on each others pages that aren’t really tags in the traditional folksonomy sense.

Jeremy talked about unexpected genres and subgenres – heavy frontier lesbian erotica for example – which they had not imagined, but are happy to have because the system is design to allow people to use if for what they want (with some clear mechanisms for separating adult from open access content).

Heather talked about when GeoTagging launched on Flickr, and someone had tagged a bunch of photos so that when you looked at a map they spelld “fuck ” in little thumbnails over Greenland.

Funniest moment:

When JPG launched story tools the first one was by Jenna Cooper – pictures taken in character as a drug addled clown, sad clown, etc. She apparently missed the “clowns are scary” memo.

Also litigious. No I’m serious.

Someone had taken a photo of a clown sitting at a bus stop – titled it “bored balloon clown” – and posted it – but the clown threatened to sue us.

If someone was going to sue flickr, it would have been great if it were a balloon clown – can you imagine a crowd of people twisting balloons into giant middle fingers outside your headquarters?

Q: How do you deal with quality?

Jeremy: at first, there was a lot of crap – there was a lot of water held behind the floodgates, and a lot of people waiting to tell their
story. Now it has evened out quite a bit.

Q: Do you feel you can compete effectively with professional photography magazines?

Derek: When the going gets wierd, the wierd turn pro – hunter s thompson. The more people you have, with the right interface and the right experience, will always produce something better than a small group.

8020 publishing’s next title is going to be in the travel genre – travel stories, advice – the wisdom of first personaccounts. Everybody has something they know about somewhere. Wouldn’t you rather hear from someone who lives there rather than some paid outsider.

It’s not about getting rid of the editor – JPG uses a hybrid model – setting the tone, setting the standard, providing leadership – the community voting determines a pool from which the editor selects.

What’s the danger of no wisdom of editors – lots of babies and sunsets no matter what the theme is.

Jeremy: Lulu calls this a retro future model – at the end of the day its just a machine that craps books. You can use technology to disintermediate so that you don’t need to justify 50,000 copies of something to drive the market.

The books don’t exist until someone buys them. Therefore it really doesn’t matter how many will buy a book before we make itavailable.

Q: Given the ease of use, why are their only 100,000 users? Everyone has a story to tell.

Jeremy: The problem is you actually do have to write it. It isn’t just enough to have a story to tell, you have to actually have told it. One of the problems is that people have a stigma about being self-published- it’s like the vanity press. There’s a different feeling in music, art – in book publishing it is still “will my mom still respect me if I’m published on lulu?”

And some professional use Lulu – SpiderWorks publishing on lulu – lots of mac titles, bridging out into Open Source titles.

The right Lulu customer doesn’t want the traditional publishing world – they choose to go through Lulu in order to retain control over their product.

JPG ended up using Lulu as a kind of launching pad – we looked at spending thousands of dollars per run in traditional offset printing versus free to us other than our time with Lulu, so it was infinitely more cost effective.

Q: What has evolved and changed over time?

Matt: Turns out people want to have sex, make money, and not be bored. Turned out that the most frequent question asked on JamGlue was “are you a boy or a girl” – originally we didn’t have gender on the pages.


Q: What kind of challenge has Yahoo! presented in terms of building community.

When you’re a small fry, you have to work really hard to define to every newcomer what is important – that are not going to go away, that you are trustworthy, etc.

But if you’re the size of a planet – you have to spend more time with every new user to show that you’re not evil.

Q: from audience – what do you do with a pro user who looks great but then ends up going bad – what happens when someone who was one of your best users suddenly starts posting photo ads or whatever.

Derek – there needs to be someone there whose job it is to respond and deal with those issues – it means you need to have someone who is in the community – dude, whassup?

How do you build a reward system – you provide a clear sense of this is what we want, and what we’re about – and a certain kind of photography – when people wander away from that, we have a community of people who care about that and want to tell us – report a problem link – a ratting out interface.

Turns out that people who’s photos you’ve removed for a given problem actually become those who are the most likely to then patrol the rest of the site.

Lulu – it’s about curated concensus – true community members manage their own communities. As Bob Young says – its easy to game Lulu: just get half-a-million of your closest friends to buy your book and everyone wins.

Best question from the audience – where do you fall on the spectrum of anonymous / pseudonomous / real user base – you learn over time, together – you are looking for consistent behavior attached to a given name – whether it is their real name or not.

Derek: we have Firstname Lastname fields but also username – so people can be anonymous. But in terms of getting published in the magazine, most of those users have a “real” firstname and lastname.

Heather – give people the tools to create their own environments and determine what they feel is appropriate.