The Right Way to Build an Online Community: 3 Rules From Investor and Flickr Cofounder Caterina Fake

Back in 2004—which is basically biblical times in Silicon Valley—Flickr was home to a tiny tribe of people who started sharing their photos online. Photo sharing begat the idea of “followers.” Followers begat activity feeds. Activity feeds begat hashtags. Hashtags begat #selfies. It’s actually astonishing how many conventions of social media were begat by Flickr.

And when Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr, looks back through that long series of begats and beholds her creation, what does she say?

“These products have come to be called ‘social media,’ but that’s not what Flickr was. Flickr was an online community. The reason they started calling it social media is because you can sell media. You can sell column inches, you can sell broadcast hours, you can advertise against it. But Flickr was not social media. Flickr was an online community. The people there were not marketing; they were having conversations. They were known to each other, and they were being part of the community. And so, that is the spirit under which Flickr had been conceived.”

Now, I know a lot of founders who would love to take credit for social media. Even partial credit. Or accidental credit. But Caterina doesn’t want any credit at all. What she sees in social media today is a corruption of the online communities she hoped to see blossoming across the web. To fix them, she says, you almost have to start over. Go back to the founding principles.

And this doesn’t apply only to what we call “social media.” There are many communities online: Marketplaces, crowd-funding platforms, content sites. And many of them are thriving, because their founders recognize, as Caterina does, that what you’re creating is a civilization. As she likes to say: You are the framer, the giver of laws, the establisher of norms — and the way you lead your first generation of users will shape how they lead the next generation and the next.

That’s why I believe every founder of an online community has a responsibility to shape the culture from day one — because the tone you set is the tone you’re gonna keep.

I wanted to talk to Caterina about this, because she played a key role in shaping so many iconic companies that set the standard for what an online community could be, including Flickr (as a co-founder) and Etsy and Kickstarter (as an angel investor and board member). Here are her 3 rules for building a community that can scale, drawn from our conversation on Masters of Scale. You can listen to the entire episode here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play.

Rule #1: Think About the Community — Not the Tool — You Want To Build

“The thing that really got me interested in the Internet was — [as a teenager], I was really into Borges — Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian writer, who in many ways predicted the internet. I found a group of scholars in Denmark who were Borges scholars online. And then I contacted them. And this was over BBSs, or WAIS — I don’t even remember how we were getting in touch with each other. But this was back pre-web, and we were having all of these fascinating conversations across the world. And this to me just was astonishing. I was, you know, this New Jersey kid in Reagan America, and a bit of an oddball — interested in all these peculiar things in a football and cheerleading town.

It was a revelation. It was amazing. All of these people who were intelligent, interesting, fascinating, and liked the same things that I did — who didn’t live in Morris County, New Jersey — were suddenly people that I could be in touch with.”

Notice how Caterina can’t even remember which tool she used for communication. To Caterina, the tool is an afterthought. What sticks out in her memory is the conversation, the connection she forged with her fellow users. And this deep-seated appreciation for these very human factors is one of the things that sets Caterina apart from so many other entrepreneurs and investors.

A lot of founders — especially the tech entrepreneurs — tend to think of the tool they want to build, as opposed to the community. The primary paradigm in Silicon Valley tends to be: Here is the tool. It’s a hammer, it’s a screwdriver. I give it to users to do a specific thing. And then the the secondary thing tends to be: Here is the interface. How can I modify it to make that behavior addictive? You can see this in the craze in Silicon Valley for A/B testing. (“See, when the button is red and jiggles a little bit, you click on it a lot more!”)

But Caterina doesn’t fight for clicks — she fights to create that homey feeling she first experienced in the Borges message room. The connection between people. That’s what she hopes to scale. She has a passion for human interaction that’s not exactly typical in Silicon Valley.

Rule #2: Shape the Conversation From Day One… and Continue to Engage After That

“In the very beginning of Flickr, each of us — we were a team of five or six people — were posting an average of 50 times a day in communication with our user base. It was a remarkable amount of communication directly with the users. It’s very rare these days for there to be direct communication between companies and their user base. In fact, [user communication] is seen as a customer service problem — you know, eating up customer service hours. Most companies actually try to prevent you from getting in touch with them.

But Flickr was, as I said, an online community, and not social media. And all of [the founders] participated in it. You’re building a civilization, right? You are the framer. You are the framer of the Constitution in this world that you are building. You are, as I say, the Abraham in the series of begats. You are the person who everybody is taking the lead from. This is the case, especially with social media, that whatever values, whatever the mores are of the platform, of the community — ‘We say this, and we don’t say that.’ ‘We have a custom of greeting people here.’ — all of this starts with you.

If you do that, and you do it well, and you do it, it will carry through. And then 500 people will be behaving the same way. And then 5,000 people will be behaving that same way. And then eventually, 500,000 people will be behaving that same way.

It’s a very difficult thing to pull off, because, as you know, social practices are difficult to scale, right? But, if you build it in such a way, and you continue to participate in it, and you continue to manage it and make sure that those people whose behavior is outside the realm of what you are encouraging on your platform are not there — then that is how you carry it through. We never stopped participating in it.

Culture sticks. It’s hard to appreciate just how much it sticks. The tone you set from day one — from the first greeting — is the tone you keep. Caterina understood this instinctively. And as counterintuitive as it may sound, she knew it was worth her time as a founder to get it right.

Caterina not only understood the importance of cultivating a community, but also the complexity. Have no doubt: Community-building is complex, and it’s filled with traps. It’s not sufficient to simply say “hello” to new users and send them on their merry way. Remember, you’re building a civilization. You have to lead by example. But it will only take you so far. Sometimes you have to assert your values at the risk of losing users. And you may be surprised how quickly users test your values. Which brings us to…

Rule #3: Know Who You Are, Who You’re For, and What You Stand For

“A very interesting case came up very early on in Flickr, which is that a great number of the users were from the United Arab Emirates. And at the same time, Britney Spears was ascendant with her bare midriff outfits. These two things were incompatible. You know, the Muslim community did not like the bare midriff photographs that were all over Flickr.

We had to make a decision. And we came down on the side of the bare midriff. We were like, ‘The bare midriff is okay here. And that is the decision that we are going to make.’ And many of the community members went away.

The biggest problem with today’s social media platforms is that they don’t know who they are. This is a very controversial position, because a lot of my colleagues — in building these kinds of social platforms — don’t believe this. But I do.

One of the things that Heather Champ — who was the first community manager on Flickr — says repeatedly is: ‘What you tolerate is what you are.’ So, if you tolerate white supremacists on your platform, you’re a platform for white supremacists. And you just have to accept that. And that unless you draw the lines, unless you say what is and is not acceptable on your platform, it just becomes a disaster. Because you want to be part of a community that share your values. And you don’t share values with white supremacists.”

This bare midriff issue may sound trivial. In fact, decisions like these are the lifeblood of your community. It isn’t that any one decision is the right decision. You can imagine other, flourishing communities coming down against the bare midriff. But you have to decide.

By making these decisions — or avoiding them — you’re creating a hospitable climate for certain types of behavior. So every founder of an online community must grapple with these questions daily. If you’re not grappling with them, you’re living with a false sense of neutrality. You’re actually allowing your most extreme users to make the decision for you. Because in these cases, a non-decision is also a decision.

Listen to Caterina Fake’s episode on Masters of Scale here.

Entrepreneur. Investor. Strategist.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store