On my last day at South by Southwest Interactive 2010, I was fortunate enough to catch a panel led by the creator of February Album Writing Month (FAWM), Burr Settles. Joining him on the dais was Charlie Cheney, avid FAWMer and creator of the Indie Band Manager software. They were there to talk about lessons learned from FAWM, specifically what they had learned about fostering and managing a creative community online. Burr broke the lessons into 4 guiding principles:
- Don't promote. This was counterintuitive to me at first, until I understood the sub-heading: "let the community do their own promoting." This makes sense for a site like FAWM, where the goal is not to amass the biggest number of "friends" or "followers," but rather to attract people who are eager to create something, and who will benefit from (and return) the encouragement of others. Having a friend urge me to do FAWM because it changed his life for the better has much more of an impact than a Facebook ad telling me to sign up.
- Embrace constraints. This is really at the heart of the FAWM experience (or similar projects like Script Frenzy or National Novel Writing Month). The idea that constraints breed creativity might sound strange at first - after all, aren't constraints there to constrain you? But in practice, I've found time and again that having a constraint (a deadline, an improv show format, etc.) can really kick-start the creative process. Knowing that you have 28 days to write 14 songs does a lot more to foster creativity than knowing that you have the rest of your life to get around to it.
- Keep it ripe. This one was based on a principle of chemistry, but I think the underlying point is to make it easy for users to be encouraging, creative, and constructive, and make it harder for users to be negative, engage in trolling, flamebaiting, and non-stop self-promotion. A key point here is to design the interface of your site/app/tool/whatever to "mirror your ideals." For example, on FAWM, it's clear on the page for any song that the star ratings are for your records only, i.e. not a way to drive up the popularity or rank of someone's song. Similarly, built right into the song comment form is the text "Be honest but respectful with feedback!" That simple imperative is a gentle but constant reminder that we're here to help each other create and get better at it, not tear each other down or engage in ruthless competition.
- Favor communication over aggregration. This is an attempt to get around "the last.fm problem" where popular artists and songs get more popular over time. On the FAWM site, the point isn't to collect as many stars, thumbs-ups, or re-tweets as you can; the point is to make music, and share constructive feedback with the community. FAWM has some built-in tools to help fight against the tyrrany of the popular, such as the jukebox (which plays a random shuffling of all songs on the site), and a built-in search to help you find songs that have not yet been commented on; this helps push the least-noticed content to the top of the stack. Again, the point isn't to rack up as many comments as you can, but rather to emphasize that the commenting system can be a useful way to provide encouragement and feedback.
What do you think? What's the best way to foster a creative community online? Tell me in the comments.