Web09 Keynote: Building for Community

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David Karp
22-year old David Karp may not yet have the profile of web 2.0 celebrities such as Biz Stone or Kevin Rose, but his keynote at Auckland’s Web09 suggests that it may only be a matter of time. His high speed, high impact talk about what he has learned running mashup blog platform Tumblr – established in 2007 and currently with close to 1 million publishers on it – was well worth the price of the conference ticket.

Aided with supersized text slides, Karp suggested that the main principles for creating online communities is through understanding engagement, use, negativity, change, and feedback. The Web09 audience listened closely.


It turns out that Karp understood users and engagement – “the thing that makes people hit refresh” – well before Tumblr. Having loved America’s Funniest Home Videos and the “promise” of potential celebrity, Karp mixed this idea with the US “Adult Swim” format in 2005 to create the world’s first cartoon video podcast, Frederator Studio’s Channel Frederator (it had 1,000 submissions in its first week and is still running today). Tumblr has a similar concept in that people can easily upload different types of content, browse, and share it (while retaining their profile as having found or created it).


He explained that use has to be watched (people decided that the tumblr star icon was bookmarks rather than favourites), but can be tended through knowing when to seed “create your own test case” (tumblr put good examples of tumblr logs on the main page so that people would replicate it) and when to prune (hopefully done only once, for example Vimeo banning uploads of video game play).


Karp also wasn’t afraid to deviate from the straight and narrow to get things done. He suggested the best way to deal with negativity of malicious users (‘greifers’) was by hellbanning (“ Don’t let people know they’ve been blocked. Remove it for everyone but them”).  This raised a few laughs – though he also pointed out that the Twitter concept of follow/unfollow (asynchronous relationships) is a similar idea. In a wider sense, he blamed a lot of the vitriolic comments on blogs and Youtube on the community-unfriendly format: “You’re impeding their voice, making them third class citizens hidden at the bottom of the page in a blind comment box. Instead, he suggested using the UI to “Make your users 2nd class citizens, not 3rd class” by making their comments more prominent, ruling out anonymous posts, framing what people are to write in fields – “It’s hard to use a question field to say ‘F**k you’”  – generally giving them more responsibility (while still retaining control).


Many of his tips for change (e.g. “don’t test … leak it”) were also appropriately irrational responses to human irrationality (“you’re changing the place people live in … Don’t launch for the sake of it”). Most controversial (see the tweets) was to “take a note from slumlords … make things worse before they get better”:  i.e. degrade the experience (run slower, dim colours) before an upgrade. Great idea, potential PR disaster – use if you dare, I guess.


His final suggestions about feedback (i.e. questions) was that rather than filtering them by request and volume, it was far more useful to assign problem to user type:

Doing this allowed him to understand the relative importance of the problem in relation to the user, and from that how to prioritise (i.e. beginners were an immediate concern as they might leave if they were frustrated, but others also needed to have reasons to stay with the network).

The best testament to Karp’s talk was to see the majority of laptop screens in the room on tumblr by the end of the presentation. App aside, Karp proved himself to be an engaging, illuminating and knowledgeable speaker, whom I would highly recommend seeing speak should you get the chance (hear an interview with him while he was in Auckland).

Vicky Teinaki

An England-based Kiwi, Vicky is doing a PhD at Northumbria University into how designers can better talk about touch and products. When not researching or keeping Johnny Holland running, she does the odd bit of web development, pretends her TV licence money goes only to Steven Moffatt shows, and tweets prolifically about all of the above as @vickytnz.

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