Saturday, February 16, 2008

By the Community, For the Community

A couple of weeks ago, I read about a French entrepreneur named Loic Le Meur and his online video conversation community startup called Seesmic. I went to the site, told it I'd be interested in participating in alpha testing, gave it my email address, and a couple of days later, I got an email telling me I was invited back to play.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've gone to the Seesmic site a bunch of times, told a story, told a joke, spoken some Chinese, and peeked in on some unusual video conversation threads. It's been fun. I've watched a silly group of people interact. I've had ideas about using Seesmic's technology to enable video commenting on some future version of the LanguageCalls learning community. And I'm excited about the fact that I'm using the alpha version of what I think could become a very popular web destination someday.

Since Seesmic has been such a positive experience, I've been following Loic as well. On Thursday, he announced the close of Seesmic's first round of funding and revealed all participating investors.

Loic's enthusiasm alone makes the video version of the announcement worth watching, but his thoughts about community are what caught my attention most.

He said that Seesmic's revenue model is to grow a community. They're going the LinkedIn route, the Skype route: don't focus on making money until you have millions of people working or playing on your site. Build the space; get people interacting; and, then, once everyone's so happy that they're doing all your user acquisition for you, find ways to make money without interrupting their enjoyment. It is a standard Web 2.0 strategy, but when you're me and you're building a community focused, user generated content reliant website, and you're asked every day how you plan to make money, it's really nice to hear that there are people out there that are just as crazy and optimistic as you.

Loic also talked about openness. He wants this project to become the community's project. He talks to users every day. He writes about them on his blog. He asks them for advice. People post videos with ideas, and Seesmic employees jump into the conversations.

I am far from an active video poster. I've given a grand total of one suggestion. But I feel like I'm helping out a little bit. I get the feeling that Seesmic is grateful. And that makes me root for them to succeed. I can honestly say that after two weeks of sporadic Seesmic use, I want this venture to be wildly successful. Pretty weird, eh?

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This connects to my project in two ways.

1. I want to go about building my community the way Seesmic is going about it. I want users to feel like the site is theirs. I want them to want to make it better. And I want to be sure to let each and every one of them know how grateful I am for their time and thoughts and suggestions.

Obviously, a space in which people try to figure out which companies do the best things for the world is quite different from a space in which people record video clips and banter about anything and everything. Seesmic is hugely open ended and has the word FUN tattooed on its forehead. I'm working on an education project that will need the core chunk of its community to be made up of deeply concerned people with intense desire to save the world. That limits me, no question about it. But, then again, there could be community-creation power in the heaviness and urgency of my mission. So who knows. The user-created model might work beautifully.

2. I'd love to see Seesmic engage with its users on a social and environmental responsibility level. I realize it's way early, and I understand that it would be very strange for Seesmic to donate or greenspend away a chunk of their precious investment, but I wonder what would happen if they told their users that as soon as they can afford it, they are going to become a sustainable web business with a serious philanthropic lean.

I'm guessing the users would dig it.

And I'm guessing they'd dig it even more the second Seesmic decides to buy carbon credits for all their air travel. And even more when they decide to run their servers on renewable energy. They could drink Fair Trade coffee. They could work at desks made from sustainably harvested wood. They could volunteer. Anything.

If they announced to the community every time they started doing something good, I bet they'd accelerate their viral spread. I'm just one person obviously, but the second they showed me they were serious about becoming a role model business, I would transform from guy that writes emails while he watches the baseball game on TV to fanatical chest painted lunatic starting the wave in the upper deck.

And let's not forget that they're a web business with no labor or manufacturing. They make internet fun, not freezers or doorknobs, and that makes getting sustainable a lot less complicated.

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Seesmic is an open, community-focused project that's been well executed so far. For that, I think they deserve a round of applause: they're a great inspiration to those of us that want to do things with community and user collaboration. If they want to take that round of applause and make it a standing ovation, however, I suggest they take steps toward sustainability. I'd be interested to know if the rest of the Seesmic community agrees.

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