The Community is the Company

Long before I even knew that Community Management was a job I read an article that resonated with me a great deal in Jeff Howe’s fantastic book “Crowdsourcing” about the iStock Founders.

I include this extract today to remind me about two very important points;

1) Get consensus with any group that I am involved with and,

2) As Johnson puts it “Our community members don’t work for us… we work for them”

There’s also a timely reminder for myself that it’s never been about money, it’s about the search for meaning and making a difference in what I do.

Here’s the extract…

“Under this new archetype of a company – in which the community comes first – the cult of personality plays a crucial role in community building”

It’s safe to say that iStock has left the community building phase behind: there are now nearly 50,000 contributors to the website. Getty’s other divisions combined use only 2,500 photographers.

“We don’t own anything, the community does,” says Garth Johnson.

“Everything we do affects these people, whether they’re just earning enough to pay for their equipment, or they’re making mortgage payments from their photo sales. They all want a voice, and we have to give it to them, because really, the community is the company”

The upsides to this state of affairs are obvious, but there are downsides as well: even the smallest changes can roil the fickle, passionate community of iStockers. In March 2006, iStock launched a new feature on its web forums, a “Forumeter” that measured an iStockers popularity through – according to the tongue in cheek press release – ‘baffling comlex scientific methods,’ including the date and number of posts to the forum… it did not go over well. Not long after it’s launch the feature had been removed.

“Employees may be hell on overhead, but they’re paid to accept all but the most draconian policies with a polite nod. Communities, on the other hand, aren’t paid to stick around, and nothing stops them from selling their photos to one of iStock’s many competitors.

“They don’t work for us” iStocks Bruce Livingstone laughs “We work for them”

Jonathan Klein once commented that “Bruce’s brilliance is that he turned community into commerce” and Livingstone’s reply to this is that “I also turned commerce into community.”

Livingstone gets the community’s approval at every step of running his company.

Like any good community, iStock has developed its own specific rituals and patois. On iStock displaying the F5 button on the home page is code for ‘something big is coming… but we’re not going to tell you what’

We have seven forum pages about F5 as people speculate on what the changes are.

Livingstone addresses his assembled staff:

“Okay, we’ve got a bunch of things happening on Friday. Number one is the price change. Then we have all these cool things that are happening”

The cool things range from an easy way for best selling iStockers to sell their work through Getty to a 100% sales day in which contributors receive all the money from a sale, as opposed to the standard 20-40% contributors usually receive.

I’m mystified as to why Livingstone and his staff are pouring so much energy into massaging what seems like an uncontroversial move. The price of iStocks low range images is only going up a dime. “The fear is that the volume of sales will decline, someone’s always going to say the sky is falling. They are afraid that our clients will all go running to the competition”

This isn’t a totally unfounded fear. While iStock indisputably – and single handedly – created the microstock photo industry, the category has become very crowded. And then there are the clients, all 1 million of them. “They’ll say ‘you’re ruining my business because it costs me an extra £3 to buy 25 image.’ Well I’m sorry, but if that’s the case maybe your business isn’t very good.” Some debate ensues about how to introduce the price change.

Part of Johnsons job involves playing chaperone at the iStockphoto festivals known as  – iStockalypses. “The iStockalypses are crazy, dude. You wouldn’t believe the level of fanaticism. People come up and they’re like, ‘you’re from iStockphoto! Oh my god! I Loooove you guys! and hug us”


The iStockalypses are one more way in which the company bends over backward to make shooting for iStock feel more like a big, fun game than like work. Nowhere is the iStock spirit on such lavish display as at an iStockapypse; for a community that revolves around a website, these offline events have become tremendously important.

Ask someone at the office, and they’ll tell you: It’s not about the money. Ask an iStocker and they’ll tell you the same thing. In fact – would be crowdsourcers take note – if it is about the money, it won’t work. It will fizzle, not sizzle, as one of iStocks designers put it. “What’s funny is, the money people, they pretty quickly get pulled aside in the forums by the core people. Or they just don’t have a voice. People will ignore them, like ‘Oh that’s just so-and-so, they’re just here to make money’

It’s significant that people in online communities like iStock’s react with great hostility to the idea that crowdsourcing equals cost savings. No one wants to feel exploited. In the end, what iStock provides is an invaluable if impossible-tomeasure currency: Meaning. The crowd will give away their time – their excess capacity – enthusiastically, but not for free. It has to be a meaningful exchange. The profits have to come second, or they won’t come at all.”

Extracts from Jeff Howe “Crowdsourcing” p188-196.

I guess once you’ve got to this stage in the community building the next thing is what you do when there is any conflict of interest between the company’s growth strategy and the community.

I sure hope that if and when these situations arise I’ll be able to handle the situation the way that Digg did with with AACS cease and desist demands.

Here’s Digg CEO Kevin’s Rose’s letter where he risked his company by deciding to side with the community… talk about The Pirates Dilemma!

“Today was an insane day … In building and shaping the site I’ve always tried to stay as hands on as possible. We’ve always given site moderation (digging/burying) power to the community. Occasionally we step in to remove stories that violate our terms of use (eg. linking to pornography, illegal downloads, racial hate sites, etc.). So today was a difficult day for us. We had to decide whether to remove stories containing a single code based on a cease and desist declaration. We had to make a call, and in our desire to avoid a scenario where Digg would be interrupted or shut down, we decided to comply and remove the stories with the code.

But now, after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you’ve made it clear. You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be. If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying” For more info see “21st Century Diggers Revolt

Community Building: On Boarding New Members

For the past week I have been working with a group of brave, but extremely friendly, #ISTE16Pirates. Just as we did with the UK Digital Citizenship Summit, we have been using real life Pirate articles and making decisions based on their “First and Second Council Meetings.”

As the goals and destination has been set, this post looks at the importance of on boarding new members, finding ways to maintain the culture, network effects and feedback loops.

Yesterday it felt like our crew really came together and had some fun sharing some images of themselves all swash buckled up with pirate hats and parrots.

The issues of on boarding new members while maintaining the culture has been playing on my mind for a while. Last week I caught up with some critical friends to ask for some advice, which was;

1) Start with a small group of people that you know and trust

2) Get the culture right. Set the guidelines of the community

After seeing things develop over the last week and, based on the conversation yesterday, it feels like we’re on the way to achieving this.

How important is it to get these two things right? Whether an online community or in the workplace, with a group of volunteers or colleagues the advice appears to be the same and I think that Dave Logan explains this extremely well in Tribal Leadership;

“Identify your core values and then align them with a noble cause”

Nolan Bushnell also describes the importance of the culture with early users:

“Those first dozen people in your company form the seed kernels around which the culture will mold itself. A dozen individuals are sufficient for a dynamic to get going; beyond that number, others will probably conform to the ethos they’ve established.”

Bushnell also goes on to describe the importance of carefully cultivating the culture and warns of the dangers if this advice is neglected:

“In several of my companies where there have been one or two outliers, though, and I’ve found that if you don’t take care of them, change them, or get rid of them early on, they can form a toxic pod that sprouts an atrophic branch in your company.

“I once tried to change an entire company’s DNA. In the early 1990’s, I bought a firm that made some interesting products but also had a terrible corporate culture. The place had been on a 5 year decline and most of the innovative people had left. I should have fired 90% of the staff but I didn’t; I thought I could turn the company around. I was wrong. For every proposed step forward, 5 people resisted the change. The corporate ecosystem was contaminated. This was one of my worst failures.” Nolan Bushnell, Finding the Next Steve Jobs.

I’ve been involved with companies and a member of communities as a volunteer where I have witnessed this kind of decline… but how to avoid it as this group grows?

We’ve identified some goals, have a small crew that we know and trust, have some guidelines, are well on our way to modelling a couple of collections that we can show to others and will be compiling a development wishlist… so what’s next? Network effects and feedback loops?

If there are two members of the Digital Citizenship Personal Learning Network (PLN) having a discussion about #DigCit on a social media or a social learning platform, the value of the network and discussions will not be same if there were, say, 100 members of the group using the platform.

Feedback Loops

If the people checking out this new group has a positive experience and recommend others in their PLN join, then the value increases (with N2 apparently. Lol). In addition to this, the experience will be even more positive as more and more people in their PLN joins. The visits to the community will become more frequent and people will visit the community for longer periods.

The Technology Adoption Cycle

In her post “Learn to curate ISTE2015 – From someone who has been there” Allison White offers the following advice:

The tools you choose depend on what you are comfortable with and what kind of a learner you are (Do you learn best from audio notes, video snapshots or typed notes?) Sele…
from Learn to curate ISTE 2015 – from someone…

New technology ideas do not roll out in a linear fashion, the goal of any new idea/technology should be to seek out the early adopters, the innovators and tech enthusiasts (This shouldn’t be too difficult with ISTE attendees). This should be followed with engaging the early adopters and ‘visionaries’ to get their feedback… before looking to get feedback from the ‘late majority’

The graph above is from Geoffrey Moore’s Technology Adoption Cycle, the text in blue details what each groups attitude towards technology might be and the numbers in white detail how many UK FE Colleges might be in each group. Many products and services never manage to “Cross the Chasm”

As a relatively inexperienced community manager are there any concerns as we explore issues of culture and growing? Absolutely! Are there any main concerns that can be articulated? Nora Jones… What? The singer? Yep. How come? Check out how the Blue Note Jazz forum was affected by what became know as

Nora Jonestown

I hope we’ll be able to maintain the early culture… while onboarding the right people… in the right way… and at the right time… and in time for ISTE2016. What could possibly go wrong?

As this is education and the early group have a strong interest in Digital Citizenship, I hope the answer to this question is “A lot less could go wrong compared with other online communities!”

With this project and others I hope that I have taken the advice from some of the more experienced community managers who have been extremely generous with their time and hope that I have taken the advice on board and am able to apply it well.

I love the last group that Patrick O’Keefe thanks in the acknowledgement section of his fantastic book “Managing Online Communities”

“Thank you to all of the idiots out there that I had to deal with. I learned a lot from you and I share it in this book with the hope that, when you bother the next person, he or she will be ready for you.”

I’ve no idea if I’m ready, but I know that I would be a lot less ready if it was not for people like Patrick and the My Community Manager team who give up an hour of their time every week to share their knowledge and experience.

To follow the journey of this #Cmgr newbie trying to help his friends at Declara to onboard educators in the right way, assist with the development of a super user program and try to get the culture right so that educators and suppliers come together to collaborate, check out the #ISTE16Pirates Log