January 31st, 2007

Live By Community, Die By Community

by

It’s deeply ironic that the day after Fred Wilson posted a thoughtful list of everything he has learned from Flickr, which he calls the “Seminal Web 2.0 Service,” there’s a user revolt at Flickr over some changes to the system: limits to contacts and tags, and requiring users to adopt the Yahoo ID login. Thomas Hawk has a laundry list of quotes from irate Flickr users.

Users disliking changes to a system is certainly nothing new. And it would be naive of any of the parties involved to believe that Flickr could have remained an island unto itself after the Yahoo acquisition. And Flickr staff have given perfectly rational reasons for all of the changes that they made.

BUT, this type of user revolt (see Facebook user revolt, etc.) will become increasingly common for “empty vessel” platforms that depend on users for all of their content and who pass out a lot of (albeit heartfelt) Kool-aid about community.

When you buy software, you feel a certain sense of entitlement as a user, based on having paid for the software. New versions of the software are released, and users don’t like new features or the disappearance of old ones — it’s nothing new.

But when your activity on a web service platform is literally making that service what it is, i.e. without your use, the service itself would be diminished, that brings user entitlement to a whole new level. Flickr users know they made Flickr what it is, so their ire over changes to the system is magnified.

As with other instances of user revolt, most unhappy Flickr users will eventually calm down. They will realize that such changes are inevitable — and any user who thinks Flickr should be able to continue providing infinite capacity in its own little universe are naive about the realities of big business. Of course, that doesn’t mean they have to like it.

The lesson here is that the relationship between users and empty vessel web services is unique in the history of user/technology relationships — and user/media relationships, for that matter, given the bleed over. The sense of ownership is now just based on use — it’s based on the users’ content actually bringing the service to life. So while Flickr, Facebook, and YouTube, as traditional corporate owners of the service, can technically do anything they want — and they will surely have valid business reasons for wanting to make changes — they are ultimately beholden to their users.

Just ask Friendster.

  • Funny how this fits the actual Flickr user uproar about censuring German users (see here).

  • On the question of this being a unique development, I'd disagree—there are antecedents dating back to at least the BBS era. If you were the administrator (sysop) of a system and made changes that the users didn't like, they would stop calling, and your service would dry up and disappear.. It works across the commercial divide as well, as things like chat boards that charged a monthly or hourly fee were even more dependent on users showing up to interact.

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