SXSW07 Panel Notes: World Domination via Collaboration

SXSW07 Panel Notes: World Domination via Collaboration

I’ve started going through my detailed SXSW notes, with the hope of pulling together my thoughts on what I’ve learned as it applies to my future plans. I remember having those thoughts, but now I’ve got to make them real.

The first panel up is World Domination via Collaboration, moderated by BlogHer co-founder Jory Des Jardins. She happens to be one of my favorite writers on the web too. The gist of the panel: running a community in a business world, an idea that makes me clench my teeth in anticipation of the gnashing that might normally follow. However, it’s actually been successfully done; on the panel was Jessical Hardwick of SwapThing, a community-driven online barter site (note to self: cool!); Jenna Woodul of LiveWorld, an online community-building company; Betsy Aoki, the mastermind behind Microsoft’s ten zillion blogs and rescuer of fallen communities; and Lisa Stone, media strategist, blogger, and BlogHer co-founder.

As an aside, I didn’t realize it at the time, but the idea of community would continue to pop up throughout the festival. Although I tend to think of myself as not being very sociable, I’ve actually been involved with online communities for quite a while; Jenna’s background was helping run AppleLink Personal Edition, which was my first online service experience in college. I became an Apple Forum Consultant for the Apple II Graphics Forum when I was 20 or 21, became a chat host, and was part of various online communities from 1989 to 1997. At that point I became too busy with work and detached from the Internet, but in 2004 I got snagged by Orkut and rediscovered the power of online cameraderie. And you know what? It feels good. I have an inkling that was a key component of whatever was in store for me. Plus, I have always been amused by the idea of “World Domination” in the Pinky and the Brain cartoon-like way. But I digress…

Key Ideas from the Panel (that I happened to write down)

Unfortunately I didn’t always note which panelist said what, so I’ve sort of jumbled them all together below; I’d categorize these as answers to what are some factors that contribute to successful integration of community and business needs?

  • Community Relationships: Lisa Stone said this throughout the panel:Ask, don’t tell. The gist is that your community is the prime source for ideas and suggestions that will create a better community, which is what you ultimately want. You’re unlikely to be able to come up with it all by yourself, so let the community answer your questions for you. Your job as a community leader is to provide community standards, culture, and to set the mission for everyone for community benefit.

  • Corporate Adoptation of Community: Jenna Woodul observed that there’s a tendency for companies to think about community as technology, when it’s really about figuring out what the “linkage” is with the people you want to the site. Jenna mentioned the Dove What is Real Beauty campaign as an example (you may have seen the transformation video, here’s the behind the scenes clip on YouTube). Note to self: Yes. I have been thinking about not working on projects that demand either technology or design ahead of content. It seems insane to me to do it that way, but people keep asking for this. I think it’s partly because technology and design are much more tangible, in some respect, than ideas. Hm, is this what being a “Strategy Consultant” is all about?

  • Community Forgiveness: Forgiveness is almost infinite if you get the community to contribute to the solution. Great quote from Jessica Hardwick.

  • Community Needs a Voice: Betsy Aoki, queen of 10,000 blogs, described how she revived a dying community by becoming the public earpiece that people could complain to. She acknowledged the validity of every complaint, explained the situation, and bought some time for the community powers to make changes. Awesome! When you respond in person, take responsibility, and make something happen, that’s an opportunity to turn back the tide of negativity one person at a time. But boy, you had better deliver. Otherwise, you’re just another P.R. flack. On another note, people tend to look for a voice, and rally around it. The qualities of a voice, from my limited experience, is that of authenticity, the ability to effect change, a certain selflessness, connectedness with what’s going on, good timing, and a practicer of community values. Once you’re the voice, you’re it. People look toward you as an authority figure and you become the primary anchor for the chains of trust that start to grow. So remember that. The same lessons apply to CEOs and squad leaders.

  • Letting Go: Letting a community forum grow organically seems to work best…from the community’s perspective. This doesn’t always sit well with corporations, who have an innate fear of bad press except it’s in committee and therefore even more difficult to overcome. The same principle from Betsy’s observation. However, when people get together they will talk and getting this kind of feedback from people is invaluable if one knows how to deal with it. You can either acknowledge and fix it (creating customer loyalty) or ignore and bury it (creating customer apathy).

  • Grassroots Support, Trust, and Transparency: Joining any kind of community is the beginning of a relationship. So NEVER LIE. And ENFORCE community standards in person, don’t just delete posts. Someone pointed out that if someone is acting out in a real community, someone would take that person aside and see what was up. You should do the same in a virtual community. Make sure those standards are clearly stated too.

  • Clear Community Standards and Enforcement: As the community leader you’re establishing the rules so everyone can have a good time. It’s also good when someone other than the community leader can take the heat, because sometimes people aren’t comfortable talking to the chief. BA had a good story about how when things once got a little heated, she invented “Norbert the Cod of Conduct”, which was a fish somewhat like a character out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Norbert would speak in a chipper tone to help moderate the conversation in an entertaining way. Genius :-) W Betsy Aoki made an interesting comment in the beginning of the panel: A common threat that faces online communities is the lack defense mechanisms to use against the trolls, spammer, griefers, and pains-in-the-ass who want to ruin the site for everyone. It can take done the tone of a community very quickly. Giving community members the power to self-police bad behavior with tools (flagging, for example) is a wonderful thing. You still need the firm hand of authority guiding this, of course, to ensure that community standards are truly being upheld. I wonder what books on law enforcement say on this matter; it reminds me a bit of a community watch program. I would theorize that effective community defense of any kind is comprised of three parts: empowering the neighborhood watch, providing absolutely clear guidelines for both positive values and bad behavior, and having the will and authority to enforce compliance with transparency and justice.

  • Identity: The following is my reflection on the subject, not a paraphrasing of the panel: A community thrives not only on participation, but on characters as well. You know the type: funny comeback guy, helpful guy, information guy, pleasant guy, the upcoming noob, etc. Even if you don’t know their real names, their identity is something that you come to know, and becomes precious. The TV version of Densha Otako, a story about an otaku who with the help of an online BBS learns to date beyond his “social status” (think of it as “an original manga” version of a Japanese Beauty and the Geek), does an interesting job of dramatizing online identity with intercuts of the actual people behind the screennames. If you’ve got a cool sister like I do, she will bring over the ENTIRE TV SERIES and make you watch the whole thing by her side. And you WILL understand online identity, and why it’s so important. There’s also a movie, but I didn’t like it quite as much. Anyway, being part of a community means you create an identity, which doesn’t necessarily have to be based on your REAL WORLD identity. An identity is something that people invest in, and you need to provide the tools to allow this. When you have a community that values identity, community-based action tools (moderation, self-policing) becomes much more powerful because accountability starts to mean something. One of the panelists mentioned how this attitude toward identy can be baked effectively into the community technology itself; for example, Slashdot allows anonymous posting, but labels them as “Anonymous Cowards” in the comment stream. A general rule of thumb I came away with is that while you can allow people to not use their real world names, completely anonymous contribution is more like a a “grafitti wall” (Jenna Woodul). There’s some instances where that might be desirable, but if you want a community with substantive participation, participants must have an identity.

  • Engaging the Lurkers: It’s difficult to engage an entire group 100% with the same kind of activity; in an online community, the primary means of participation is through writing. Since not everyone is comfortable writing publically, providing other ways of participation is a Good Thing. There are ways that people can contribute and know they are “making a difference”: polls, uploading photos, pointing out corrections, etc. From a game design sense, the general principle is that for every action there is some kind of discernable benefit (or disadvantage, in the case of behavior that is against community standards). Betsy and Lisa described some of the other challenges of engaging the lurkers, which I’d broadly describe as issues of community leadership. If you want people to feel comfortable posting, then you need to set that example of openness yourself. If you want more people to start participating, you may need to provide training or guidance to help people get over that initial hump. Everyone can use a hand at some point, and an encouraging cameraderie can make all the difference. Sometimes it’s hard for lurkers to see the value of what they might contribute, so some private 1-on-1 can help. As was repeated throughout the panel, communities are built one person at a time.

Application of Community to Business

I’ve been thinking a lot about community these days, because I’d like to be part of the population that builds “creative sanctuary” in the world. I don’t know why this is—I could blame my exposure to idealistic, hard-working people like my parents or reading Robert Heinlen before I learned to think for myself—but this is a path that seems natural. So how do I apply these lessons of community toward this? Mechanically speaking, I think the general community-building process can be distilled to this:

You can provide the tools and the resources to build a community, which will result in one of the following outcomes: A. The community grows organically, growing first from the energy you supply, then feeding on its own energy as passionate, active people and their followers contribute to its life. You don’t know what exactly is going to come out, but once it does you’ll have an opportunity to do something with it. or B. The community dies because you’ve undernourished some aspect of it, or people have decided that your community isn’t for them because their needs are not met, or the benefits to them are not clear.
I find the similarities between successful community and successful company very interesting too:
  • To survive, both entities need the attention of people. This means attention on the part of the leaders, and attention from participants to create a critical mass of social interaction that produces more leaders, more meaning, and more energy.
  • Each also needs strong leadership to set the tone, direction, and vision for the organization. Without this, a community may grow “wild” and fracture in unexpected ways. This may or may not be important to you if you just want to see something grow, but if you are thinking of harnessing that energy in some manner, then you had better be on the ball.
  • Each entity needs to offer a compelling reason for people to join or use their service/product. Again. Clear benefits.
  • People will stick around only if the benefit is tangible, and the experience of getting that benefit is mostly positive for them.
  • Remember that not every company or community appeals to every type of person; this is a case where the desires of the individual is not as important as the overall vision and tone for the community.
The differences between a non-monetized community and for-profit company are probably assets and control structures:
  • In a community, the main assets are identity, reputation, information, and support. In a company, the main assets are the people you’ve got (or “own” through employee contract in exchange for cash and benefits) and revenue-generating products and services.

  • In a community, control is indirect. It’s applied through the setting of community standards and the mission that will promote the growth of the community. In a company, control tends to be applied directly; employees are understood to be contributors to an execution plan, with the overall strategy and end-game visible to those at the top.

  • The corporate ideal is control leading to purposeful and efficient action. The community ideal is meaningful action arising from emergent community desire.

  • In a community, a participant is rewarded as his/her identity is increasingly recognized. In a company, an employee is compensated for doing his/her job with money, though recognition is also a factor.

For those seeking to integrate the two—profitable company versus community—the differences would at first seem to be at odds with each other. However, this is only if you see traditional company structure as the equal of community; because I’ve presented an A vs B structure in my dissection, this may seem so. That’s an interesting observation in itself, actually. We’re conditioned by the media to believe that companies are somehow more powerful and capable of direct action than communities. Companies represent a concentration of will, and in a one-on-one battle will dominate an individual. Communities represents slow-moving tidal forces, a mass of individuals with a shared goal inexorably enveloping and overwhelming the relative few of even a large company. Ask who would come out on top in this matchup: LASER BEAM versus THE SUN. It depends on the rules of the game, of course. A fundmental rule is that while the correlated emissions of a company structure is capable of generating very high efficiencies relative to the unorganized masses, companies are dependent on biomass; that is, people in large numbers to buy their services. The larger the company, the more dependent they are on people as a statistical concept that plugs into their financial projections. Nevertheless, a commercial entity is something that I’d like to have, because it would become the engine to fund projects that I think would be meaningful to the individual. Some successful hybrids have arisen that seem to have figured out a balance between the empowered individual and corporate profits:

  • Businesses that include community as the motive force within the business model (e.g. Skinnycorp, which is more widely known for Threadless).

  • Businesses that have a culture of empowering individual drive to help dissolve the barrier between company and consumer. Company employees are, in essence, community leaders, empowered to represent the company to the outside world. I can’t think of any good examples…maybe Google or Southwest Airlines? Employees who are conditioned by culture to pay attention to the customer and bring that perspective back inside the company (where it can actually effect some useful change) are a powerful asset.


p>In my limited experience, I’ve found that companies tend to have an “inside” and an “outside” mentality. This is probably necessary for focus so people can actually get work done, but a good company should also be smart enough to know the difference between the “looking inwards perspective” (operations, covering your ass) and “looking outwards” (strategy, marketing, mission, products). The movement of ideas between the inside and outside, such that a transformation of process or understanding can occur, is where things get hard. Looking is not enough. It’s easy to get caught up in what you need to do for your coworkers, and it’s easy to forget that the people outside your company are more than just statistically-modeled sources of revenue. You tend to place importance on the people that you are interactive with directly, after all: your immediate coworkers, your manager, your family. The fusion of community with business may boil down to two main principles: providing the means to build individual relationships, coupled with tangible products/services that encourage both immediate and long-term formation of those relationships. And on top of that, the inclusion of community forces from the outside world into the business. Which means the dissolution of the wall that defines the inside and outside of a company.

Audience versus Community

There are some that are applying the community model as an engine for attracting eyeballs, which is essentially treating people as “biomass” to gather in one place, creating advertising and profile-raising opportunities:

  • User-provided content companies like YouTube
  • The American Idol music-making enterprise
  • Entertainment-based portals like NewGrounds
  • MySpace and SecondLife, which are more like new forms of “hot real estate”

They’re all harnessing the power of individuals to cluster by shared interest, objects, or locations, and the companies that can track and agregate those individual attributes into statistically-meaningful channels and demographics can then “sell eyeballs” to those who want to get more revenue per advertising dollar spent.

This is a different sense of community than what this panel was describing…actually, what I’m talking about here is audience, which is one-way. A true community-based business of the first kind (e.g. Threadless) is driven by fulfillment of the desires of the member base. Businesses of the second kind are driven by getting in front of the best demographic for your product.

The former also implies (to me, anyway) that everyone benefits, while the latter is more for the benefit of the product seller. That’s not automatically bad—after all, the product could be genuinely cool, and people just needed to find out about it. Perhaps I am also sensitive to this issue because I am trying to figure out the best way to start my own business doing more of what I like by making and selling things. Through these things, I want everyone to be empowered to pursue their particular form of happiness. Selfishly speaking, it’s because I want the same thing. And for me, that comes down to creating community, not attracting an audience. It’s a subtle distinction that I didn’t pick up on because the mechanisms and metrics used (in my case, blogging) are very similar. The underlying motivation, however, is what’s different.

Whew. I thought this post would never end :-)


  1. misterdubs 17 years ago

    A great article and frankly, not long enough. One line particularly caught my eye:

    “Your job as a community leader is to provide community standards, culture, and to set the mission for everyone for community benefit.”

    “…for community benefit” implies that the leader would have to forego thoughts of “me first” and base all decisions on what would be good for the community. It seems as if the majority place profit above community.


  2. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    misterdubs: Thanks! Your comment reminded of a conversation I had once with a real estate agent talking about their “farm”, which is a carefully-cultivated field of prospects who, every few years or so, are looking for a house. If you have a good farm, you have some form of predictable income. However, it’s also a mutually beneficial arrangement: the real estate agent puts repeat clients into houses they love, and the repeat clients commissions allow the real estate agent to keep doing business. I think that “profit”, for someone like me, needs to be inclusive of both leaders and the community; the leader perhaps needs to be IN the community, or have a genuine interest in maintaining its welfare. I think people can smell the rat if that’s not the case.

    There is a point where the leader may have to think “me first” too. For example, there may be a split of opinion on what the “true spirit” of the community is…there are always the people who want more control for “higher quality conversation”, and those that favor “open access” to everyone. You can’t service both. The leader has to make a call and stick with it, and that call I think needs to be in the interest of the leader, otherwise passion fades. He/she may lose a part of the community because of that, but oh well.

    Some examples of good communities that come to mind are the online comics communities…Scott Kurtz (Player v. Player) and the Penny Arcade guys come to mind. They certainly have a community that’s grown from interest in their creative endeavors, and they’ve done things to help that community form its own identity without compromising their own desires. Kurtz, for example, really has successfullly incorporated his business goals with that of his online presence, and he’s not quiet about it. He’s earned some boos along the way, but he’s stuck to his guns. Then there are other business ventures, like Modern Tales, which took the work of really wonderful writers/artists to make for-pay subscription service that on the surface seemed really reasonable, but kind of ended up not working out (that’s my impression, anyway). In the latter case, communities couldn’t form, perhaps, because the barrier of entry was such that people couldn’t form the critical mass of fandom. It’s very interesting…it may be that the value of a community from a business sense is that it helps you find the 10-20% of people who will end up supporting your goals financially through mutual benefit. A few micropatrons are probably what matter more than a lot of micropayments. So ironically, maybe it does boil down to a numbers game so you can find those relative few out of the crowd.

  3. Eric 17 years ago


    Your link to BlogHer is wrong. The site is at (not .com). If you fix this, they will visit it (ok, that was supposed to sound like “if you build it, they will come.”  Pretty lame, I agree.) Please fix…

  4. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    Eric: Ooops! Thanks for the heads up! :-)

  5. misterdubs 17 years ago

    Excellent points, David and I agree with your thoughts on community and leading a community. I’d also like to expand on something you said,

    “There is a point where the leader may have to think “me first” too. “

    I believe that point may be avoided, if the leader has taken the time to carefully craft a Mission Statement that takes into account the following points:
    *Building trust in the community
    *The purpose and goals of the community
    *The mutual benefits that the community and the leader can expect from each other
    *The profitability of the community

    The Mission Statement can act as a roadmap for the community, pointing the way when the community (or individuals within the community) are in danger of getting lost.

    It prevents the leader from having to act or think “me first”, which, in a heated moment, may not be in the community’s best interest.

    That’s not to say that the leader won’t earn some boos along the way, because he will. But, he’ll earn them honestly!

  6. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    misterdubs: Heh, I love that…“But, he’ll earn them honestly!” :-)

    I think you’re right on the money about the mission statement saving a lot of grief, with a couple caveats. First, while it’s not too hard to pre-define one’s vision fo a good community, it’s difficult to anticipate the interpretation of the rules. There will be times when it’s unclear, and the community leader will probably need to say something that comes on one side or the other according to HER vision. Community does not imply democracy, and with democratic expectations deeply planted in the population, conflict of some kind is pretty likely to arise. That’s all I’m saying…realistically, there will be times that the CL has to make a choice based on her OWN values, not always following the democratic process which is, oftentimes, distorted because it’s driven by loud vocal minorities.

    So I don’t think we’re disagreeing…I’m just thinking about a specific case that supports my belief that a CL needs to believe in what she’s doing, be honest about that with the community, and forge ahead.

  7. misterdubs 17 years ago

    David, I hadn’t thought of how the Mission Statement could be interpreted. I understand what I mean, why doesn’t everyone else ;>? Great article and comments. Thanks!

  8. Otaku 17 years ago

    David, apparently there are otaku that would really save a lady in distress. No community necessary :P

  9. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    Otaku: I’m not sure how your link is related to the discussion, but as a fan of Densha Otako I’m going to leave it in :-)