Community is as Important as Code

I’m a fan of the ATP 1. On a recent episode they talked about the amount of time one of the hosts, Marco Arment, spends on responding to email regarding his podcasting app Overcast. The gist 2 is that Marco doesn’t respond to much, if any, email regarding his app. I don’t think that’s the best thing for the community that’s developed around his code. I encourage developers creators of anything to rethink how they handle communication from their customers.

Marco is a successful one man shop. He’s the engineer behind the successful tumblr and Instapaper among other accomplishments. I like him and I think he’s one of the good ones 3. He obviously knows what he’s doing.

I understand where he’s coming from when it comes to feedback and engaging with folks, especially over things like bugs and feature requests. It takes time that  isn’t coding and that can sometimes feel like ‘not work’.

But nurturing the community around your product/service 4 is work and it’s incredibly important. Just as important as every line of code you type.

Ignorance is Bliss

People don’t know you’re a one-person shop. They don’t think about the expectation of support from one $5 app from a larger company 5 compared to that of a smaller company. They don’t know that the app was made by a team of 10 in an organization of 10,000.

They might do a little research, ask a friend what they recommend, and then hit the App Store to download something to solve their need or want.

Frankly they shouldn’t care. Some level of support is expected. I don’t view it as an entitlement, but perhaps more of an expectation of doing business. If you contact a business, of any size, I don’t think it’s crazy to expect a response.

Look at the use and success of tools like Yelp. Why does Yelp exist? What’s the most unusual and valuable part of that service? The reviews! Businesses (smart ones at least) care about what people are saying on Yelp. They respond with sincerity and engage with their customers.

Ignorance also goes the other way. How you respond is how you will be perceived. Not caring what customers think of your company and product is inviting ignorance into your work.

It’s also a humbling thing to receive feedback and questions. You do not know it all. No one does. Ignoring or mocking the idea of responding to email from people shows arrogance. I can’t believe I’m referencing a Reddit comment as part of my argument, but, in this thread asking “What is the most unflattering thing a person can do to themselves?” someone said:

“It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice”

While you could argue that responding to emails might not help your code – responding to people is being nice. That’s more important than one more bug fix or one little tweak to the UI. Letting people in, shedding some of their ignorance and empowering them with knowledge is helpful to you and the community at large.

Community Props You Up

People will help support you. There is an admonishingly large amount of prior work in this area. Look at the Apple community boards. A giant company creates a place for others to help each other. Panic, a much smaller company, has a nice Q&A site setup for their community. These are for-profit companies. Looking at the open-source communities you’ll see even more – like local Meetups around Ruby, Drupal, PHP, WordPress, Small-Business owners, photographers, marketers, etc. Wikipedia in its entirety is all about people helping each other to make something.

Word of mouth is still the #1 best way to grow a product or service. It’s incredibly powerful – more so than almost any other form of marketing. It’s genuine, it happens naturally, and it’s often more deserving than spending millions on a campaign. The people helping other people are doing it out of love for the things that you create.

Outside feedback is invaluable. Working in a small team or inside of a large organization it sometimes becomes difficult to get a genuine outsider view of your work. Developing a community around your products or services helps to break out of that echo chamber and get a fresh set of eyes on what’s going on. Invaluable help from interested folks. Ya can’t beat that.

Ignoring the 700th email of a particular issue, say a bug, is wrong.

These +1 numbers on an already existing issue are indicators. They should sway you. Influence your to-do list. Your response. A handful of responses in one direction could mean a lot. A “canary in the coal mine” on what your community wants, or more importantly, needs.

Trust is Scary

Putting faith into a community of people you don’t know is scary. Terrifying even. I help to host events for the local WordPress community here in St. Louis. Every month, at the end of one of our meetups, we ask what topics folks would like to hear about next month. We take an informal poll and pick a topic. Then we ask who would like to present. Numerous times it’s someone I’ve never met who has never spoken up.

I have yet to be disappointed with a presentation. I put faith that if someone is willing to step up and speak in front of a group of strangers, they’re doing it out of good will and are motivated by something other than financial or professional gain.

You Work For Each Other

They took their time. That’s what is valuable. Your customer’s time. Not the novelty. Not the accuracy. Their time. It doesn’t even register to them that their bug report or suggestion is the 500th in a long line of similar suggestions. Their time is equally important as your time. Thinking and acting otherwise shows hubris and arrogance. They are working for you by using their time to give feedback, ask a question, or file a complaint.

By not responding, by not putting it out there, you have nothing to point to say, “Yes, I hear you.” It enters a void of your inbox and only encourages more silent tosses into the abyss. Creating a community helps alleviate these emails. People who enjoy your creations will help you and other people who are looking for information.

It Pays Off

Terry Gross had this great interview with David Remnick the editor from The New Yorker.

At the end of the interview Gross asks if Remnick asks him about his time and how he manages responding to every inquiry regarding The New Yorker.

From the transcript:

REMNICK: Bring it on. The odds are tough. I remember when I was in my 20s, I sent William Shawn a query letter, and I got an answer. And I never forgot getting an answer.

GROSS: What was the answer?

REMNICK: The answer was no (laughter). But I never forgot the time that was taken to write a cogent, short note about why not. And I also remember when I submitted my first piece to The New Yorker, which was happily accepted by Gottlieb – by Bob Gottlieb – he answered that day – that night. And I’ll never forget that. And I know in my heart that I’m falling short all the time in a million different ways, but I try to answer emails, letters, phone calls because I know not only is it the right human thing to do, I think, but also, once in a blue moon, it’s going to pay off. Once in a blue moon, you are going to get a short story, a suggestion, an idea that’s going to find its way into The New Yorker and be something or someone brilliant. And that’s part of the job. And it’s a delightful one.

Who knows what responding to a simple request for feedback will turn into? What might seem like a boring response to a question asked for the 300th time might turn into something much more.

Writing is Thinking

Listening and responding helps you to think about your creation. The entire product or service is evaluated in a new light.

Automattic requires all new hires to work the help desk. Why is that? Shouldn’t those developers be writing code? Shouldn’t project managers be catching up on the team’s progress? No. Learning how the product works and understanding how customers approach the product works to improve the product.

Writing up a FAQ with that experience from the customer’s view helps you think about how your creation works. Where can it be improved? What keeps coming up as a difficulty? What’s not clear? What can I go back and make better?

That comes from wiring and thinking about things in public. Pushing the ‘Submit’ button and letting others see it. Responding to what they put out there.

In Summary

I encourage all creators of things, whether it’s an iPhone app, a web site, a community, a non-profit – whatever – to deeply consider the work and art of community feedback and dialog. Consider it to be just as crucial to the growth and stability of your work. Just as writing code, organizing topics, or wrangling volunteers is. They go hand-in-hand with happiness and success and are not nearly as scary or time-consuming as one may think.

In the end you grow as a person and professional, your product or service grows in its capability and focus, and the community as a whole benefits from learning and sharing from one another.


  1. Accidental Tech Podcast

  2. You should go listen to episode #102 and #103 specifically.

  3. So are the rest of the hosts of ATP. All good people. All doing amazing things. All are mensches for taking time out to share their thoughts with us.

  4. What you do could be for-profit, proprietary, or non-profit, open-source, whatever. It doesn’t matter.

  5. Say Adobe, or even medium-sized like Panic or Savage Interactive (The folks behind Procreate)

A Great Interview with Mike Monteiro – “Design Is Not An Investment”

“Yes, investments are great. They’re also not necessary. When I think of investments I think of stocks, artwork, original Star Wars figures mint in box. Stuff that’s nice to have, and that you hope increases in value someday. Design is core. It’s not a nice-to-have. It’s plumbing. It’s foundation. You don’t invest in design. You can’t exist without it. A website without design isn’t a house without art, it’s a house without a bathroom.”

Like any professional I have numerous books on topics core to my work. Technical manuals for systems, guides for programming languages, historical text from founders in the discipline, and numerous outdated (FrontPage 97!) reference materials from years gone by.

Yet, there is only one book that I would give to anyone entering the field. Mike Monteiro’s Design is a Job. I’ve been a ‘professional’ for over a decade. I just read his book a few years ago and it has changed how I approach everything – for the better.

And now Mike has a second book out, from the other side of the table as it were, called “You’re My Favorite Client“. This interview with him is a great introduction to the relationships between designer and client.

Both of Mike’s books are essential for anyone working to create something for someone else. Web design, photography, app developers – all will gain more from these books than any technical guide or “Photoshop for Dummies” could ever muster.

All your Facebook Friends are Photographers and That’s OK

I saw this question/rant on Reddit the other day that perturbed me enough to write a long-ish response.

The gist is that people who buy a DSLR and start taking on paying gigs aren’t photographers. Or at least they rubbed against the grain of the OP (Original Poster).

I disagree, and in fact this kind of rhetoric appears far too frequently in the few photography communities I participate in.

My reply:

The levels of skill in photography are many. I imagine it’s daunting to someone who’s never used a camera (much less a DSLR, in manual mode, editing raw, with multiple lenses, flash/strobe, etc etc.) to understand what goes into taking a good photograph. There’s the obvious technical know how, but also the aesthetic eye for good composition.

Now, that said, to be someone who takes photographs better than 99% of the population takes a small elevation in skill. A very small but noticeable blip. You take a class or two, pick up a few books, buy some nice kit, practice, practice practice. Bam, you’re now able to have a few photos that look better than most people could ever imagine taking. Now you’re better than most people you’ll ever know.

To go from the folks you’re describing to say Ansel Adams or Annie Liebovitz level of quality is many, many blips of improvement.

For most of us here, we’ve got a few blips – gained a few levels. Some more than others. But to most people we’re all lumped in a category of “Are you a wizard ?” when it comes to this stuff. And frankly, it’s hard for a non-photographer to see who’s a newbie starting out and who’s been doing this for 20 years.

You use the word worse, which has negative connotation. In the words of a man with a few more blips than I, True professionals don’t fear amateurs.

Being a professional is more about showing up and doing a job than having the best skills or resources. You can accomplish more with a great work ethic, networking and producingsomething. If these people are getting work, great. If they’re learning, even better! Are they making things ‘worse’? Cheapening the ‘art of photography’? Pfffttttt. They show up, they take photos better than most people could and they get paid.

Everyone has to start somewhere. It’s those that stick with something that improve – themselves, their work, their community, the art form, et al. – that are the folks to admire and encourage. Being frustrated, worrying about the negative potential is useless. It’s a windmill to ignore.

Instead I say help them, encourage them. Be a good mentor (as you mentioned doing) and help elevate anyone willing to show up and put in the work. Not enough people do that, and instead post silly stuff like this, that I feel worsens our collective attitude to those that share a similar interest.

tl:dr; It’s late and I should go to bed.

—-

Since writing that, I have thought more about this.  Anyone can be a professional photographer. As with every skill and industry, there’s always going to be a great gradation in the quality, skill and, proliferation of work. Some people you might find on Facebook or Craigslist – or even people recommended to you! – might totally suck. But not starting, not putting yourself out there? That’s what worries me.

More people should pick up a camera and see what they can do with it1. If they get a paying gig, great! If they do a bad job? Well that would suck. But like I state in my reply, even a low quality photographer is better than most people. And people are willing to pay and admire those with skills they lack.

So what happens to ‘bad’ photographers? I would like to believe that they will get better. We need more bold people to try than people who never try at all.

I encourage you to take a look at the full conversation over on Reddit. There’s some interesting dialog and viewpoints. If you have your own thoughts, please share them.


  1. This applies to all trades/professions. More people should try making and doing things with their own hands.

I Haven’t Been Blogging, Busy Building

I just finished a rough draft of an analysis paper that’s already 17 pages long. I’m working on a Semantic Wediawiki tool for our department’s job descriptions & learning resources and in my spare time building a new responsive website for a local business. Not much time to write, but I have been thinking. Mostly about photography, time and how the two are connected from both a technical perspective (the advance of what we can do) and from an artistic perspective (what is photography any more?).

Here’s some things I’ve been reading:

Photographs Are No Longer Things, They’re Experiences – Pete Brook for Wired

Portrait: A Documentary About a Popular Instagrammer and a Pro Photographer – Andy Newman via PetaPixel

The Perfect Shot – Canon Commercial via Devour

The “Most Important Ramification” of Wearable Lifelogging Cameras – PetaPixel

 

What I’d love to see from Flickr

A few comments from my good friends John Lamb1 and Kurt Werstein had me thinking about what I like about Flickr and why I keep using it when so many people have moved to Facebook, Google+, Zenfolio, 500px2 and the like.

I’ve been an enthusiast photographer for a while. According to Aperture I have taken over 26,000 photos in the past 7 years. I’ve recently started investing more time (and by association, money) into my hobby of photography with a recent camera purchase.
I’ve shared over 3,000 of my photos on Flickr. I love it and have consistently used Flickr since 2005. Recently it’s been chided as having missed the boat on things like social and mobile, but for reliably sharing images and finding other photographers (and their photos) it’s the best solution I’ve found yet.
I’m also an Aperture person, so I love the integration between the two. It makes my workflow more efficient and less frustrating than alternatives. In the past I would load the images into a folder, sort by hand to find those worth editing/sharing, load into Photoshop, edit and then export. Then, finally, upload to Flickr.
Aperture handles that all for me, even keeping the EXIF data intact including titles for my pics. Best part is that it can auto-create sets and import keywords to tags to boot!
While I’m a Flickr fan, I do admit that there are a few things that Flickr could improve in their offerings to avid and professional photographers alike. I’ve been jotting notes down for a few weeks now as I’ve thought about my relationship with Flickr. I have a few idea that I think are worth sharing.
I’ll update this article as I think of new things and hopefully as Flickr adds these features over time I’ll get to mark a few out. If you have a suggestion or an idea, please leave a comment.

Professional Views

Lightbox view on Flickr is great, but one click and you’re back to the normal Flickr. Give photographers the option to set themes for sets or collections. Great for pointing clients to review a set of photos.

Password protected sets or collections

Speaking of photographers sharing specifically with clients, let photographers share their stuff in a controlled way via passwords without requiring guests to have a Yahoo! account. Great for sharing proofs (or final edits) to a select group or individual client. I could see this being very popular for photographers shooting corporate events, weddings, birth announcements, etc. See Vimeo’s handling of password protected videos as an example.

Better monetization options

Give photographers a cut of print sales, more third-party companies to print to and allow photographers to create a ‘store front’ for select photos. Like the professional views idea above, let photographers edit a few areas to make things look professional.

Individual licensing

This is related and a fairly recent trend. Cut out the middlemen (Getty, Shutterstock, etc.) and let people (professional, semi-pro and casual) market directly to other individuals looking for photography.

Less page refreshes, more visible metadata

 

 

I’d love quicker access to common metadata – having to click and wait for a second page load sucks. I love looking at a photo at a large size and seeing what other people are doing with the same gear – or with gear I’m interested in. I love photos where I go, “Huh, how did they do that?”
Make this a modal AJAX element of the information. When I click the + next to the ‘Taken with a xx’ have some of the high level EXIF data present such as lens, aperture, shutter speed, ISO and time of day.

 

 

Update: It’s not perfect (I think it should be higher on the page) but Camera Settings (EXIF) is now on the photo page!

Better mobile apps

The current Flickr mobile site and iOS app are rather lackluster. Let people upload from their smart phone to the site without the app. (iOS 6 FTW!) Allow group participation on Flickr to be as easy as Facebook or Twitter for mobile interfaces. Let me comment and share to groups with ease. I want to see notifications when people comment on a photos, add as a favorite, or reply to a comment.

Better Groups

Groups are great nodes in the big web of photographers on Flickr. They’re focus points of attention across a sea of individual photos. Give Flickr groups a shot in the arm with a more modern interface. Threaded comments, voting and collapsible navigation. Let me see past comment history from folks. Allow folks to upload more than 6 photos at a time and give me Facebook-like notifications when activity has occurred in a group. Let people like a photo directly from every embed – like you can in justified view. Use the tags, titles and set/collection names to suggest related groups that I might be interested in. Do I tag a lot of photos in Seattle? Invite me to Seattle-related groups. Are most of my photos taken at night? How about some night photography groups?

Better Stats

I’m spoiled by Google Analytics, WordPress.com and Facebook metrics. Flickr gives you some basic stats, but I’d love to see timeline views for individual photos over a range greater than the past 30 days. Let me see how different ways of publicizing my photos impacts its views over time.
Give photographers better stats on where people are coming from. A lot of my referrals are internal to Flickr. Tell me where on the site are they coming from. Are most of my views from random keyword searches, groups I participate in, people who are contacts, etc?

Find people

Help me find people with similar tags, group membership, geographic location of photos (and profile). One of the great things about Instagram is the ability to quickly find existing friends from Facebook and Twitter. (Yes, I’m aware that the Twitter contact function was removed in a recent update.) Figure out a way to plug me in to as many folks as possible. Make recommendations intelligent and unobtrusive.
This is really just a list of desired features and not a deeply substantial or cohesive strategy for moving Flickr forward. I do enough of that in my day job!
I hope these ideas give a hint of a bigger picture and some suggestions to move things forward. I know there are smart, passionate and creative people working on Flickr – people who are far more intelligent than I in figuring out what Flickr needs.
I have high hopes for those folks. There’s plenty of positive movement with Yahoo’s new CEO, the great team that continues to support Flickr and the recent news about the SVP over Flickr having a past as a National Geographic wildlife photographer. I don’t think Flickr is dying, but I do think it needs a good shot in the arm.

  1. Yes, that John Lamb. The award-winning theatre photographer John Lamb. 🙂

  2. Small dig on 500px – the UI is super nice, but the whole ‘pulse’ concept seems trite. It also only lets you upload jpegs. Yuck.