With so much focus on social media and fostering conversation these days, companies both big and small are trying to figure out the best way to grow communities. Looking around at the number of blogs dedicated to the topic, you'd think there was some complex formula you needed to follow to get one going. Of course George Oates from Flickr would tell you you're wrong.

In a great post over at A List Apart last week, Oates walked readers through the growth of Flickr and how the team behind the site worked (or didn't) to foster it.

Oates lays it out like this:

People don't like being told what to do. We like to explore, change things around, and make a place our own. Hefty design challenges await the makers of websites where people feel free to engage; both with the system itself and with each other. Embrace the idea that people will warp and stretch your site in ways you can't predict--they'll surprise you with their creativity and make something wonderful with what you provide.

At Flickr, we've worked very hard to remain neutral while our members jostle and collide and talk and whisper to each other. Sharing photos is practically a side-effect. Our members have thrilled and challenged us--not just with their beautiful photography, but by showing us how to use our infrastructure in ways we could have never imagined.

At the heart of Oates' article is the reminder that you can't "control" social media. You can offer up the tools and the environment to allow people to congregate and communicate, but you can't try to force them to fit your own ideas of how that communication should take place. Granted, you don't want mass pandemonium or anarchy...there do have to be limits in terms of spam, stalking and the using the community to hock your wares. Oates and company have handled that in their own way as well:

We needed a way to represent the culture of the place. So, as I sat on a train for several mornings with Heather Champ, Flickr's very own community manager, we tossed back and forth The Thirteen-Or-So Commandments. Of course, they weren't actually commandments, but rather guidelines that we wanted all our new members to at least skim. My personal favorite--"Don't Be Creepy: You know the guy. Don't be that guy."--is something a lawyer would never write, and yet it speaks volumes.

In Flickr's case, they were building a community of their own. In a small businesses' case, they'll likely be building conversation via a blog, or hoping to foster community on another site or forum. Either way, the advice and insight from Oates' article applies. You can't shape the conversation online, you can only encourage it...and the best way to encourage it is to provide the tools and let the conversation itself come from the community.

May 12, 2008

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > How to Grow a Community by Leaving it Alone