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”

iStock

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

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