Is it cool to be accessible?

Two posts that came together on the same riff but from different angles. Do communities scale?

First Danah Boyd on “coolness”

“Coolness” is about structural barriers, about the lack of universal accessibility or parsability. Structural hurdles mean people put in more effort to participate. It’s kinda like the adventure of tracking down the right parking lot to get the bus to go to the rave. The effort matters. Sure, it weeds some people out, but it makes those who participate feel all the more validated. Finding the easter egg, the cool little feature that no one knows about is exciting. Learning all of the nooks and crannies in a complex system is exhilarating. Figuring out how to hack things, having the “inside knowledge” is fabu.

- from Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad?

Then today I read Seth Godin on “authenticity”

Here’s the problem: The moment you take your special, authentic, limited-edition product and leverage it, make it widely available and normal, the very people who loved it inevitably rebel. “Starbucks isn’t what it used to be,” they tell you. The tastemakers who made you successful in the first place turn on their heels when they smell that you’re not authentic anymore.

When a product is everywhere, when it’s hyped in the media and advertised on the sides of buses, sometimes it seems as if the product exists and succeeds because it is everywhere. Before ubiquity, when it seemed as if the product (or its creator) wasn’t in it just for the money, somehow that felt more real, more wonderful, more authentic.

- from Tom Chappell sell out

It’s a trick to get this balance right. The quote from Seth was spurred by the news that Tom of Tom’s of Maine toothpaste sold to Colgate for $100 million. News that struck a similar chord are last week’s announcement that L’Oreal bought the Body Shop for over $1 billion, Six Apart’s acquisition of LiveJournal, and the buyout of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream by Unilever back in 2000.

In each case, the story was painted as a faceless corporation trying to usurp the community built up around a product to serve it’s short term commercial objectives. Yahoo has sailed through these rough waters as well when it acquired flickr, upcoming, and delicious. The point often missed in the hysteria is there is absolutely no benefit to a large company coming in and sucking the life out of a young and vibrant community. Why bother to set aside capital for an acquisition only to quash it and rob it of it’s value?

I think Yahoo has shown that it can take a community such as flickr and give it a good home (servers, bandwidth, and other resources) and also learn from that community and internalize the best things about it (tags, open apis, ui design).

There’s lots of talk about scaling an application to serve a larger audience. The one sold out session at the recent eTech conference was Flickr developer Cal Henderson’s tutorial, “Scaling Fast and Cheap – How we built Flickr” One thing that is not discussed as often is the other side of growing which is scaling the community. What are some of the best practices around taking a small, home grown community and scaling it out to serve millions?

The posts above identify the problem. Are there any examples of successful communities that have managed to retain their “coolness” and “authenticity” while at the same time becoming “universally accessible” and “ubiquitous” or are the two mutually exclusive? Religion comes to mind – are there others?

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