Lessons From FAWM (via SXSW)

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.
You can download the slides from the panel here [PDF] and hear an audio stream of the second half of the panel here. You should also take a look at my previous posts about SXSW and FAWM for some more context about this topic.

What do you think? What's the best way to foster a creative community online? Tell me in the comments.


John Das Binky said...

I've chatted about these points extensively with my wife, who has an MBA in marketing, and I tend to agree with her assessment... they work for a site like FAWM, but they don't really apply to 99% of the rest of the Internet.

The big determinant there is, of course, money. FAWM is fortunate in that they aren't looking for much in the way of $$$, just covering costs. Most sites are looking for ways to monetize, and these tips don't work for that. In fact, FAWM has made a big donation push this year, and come up WAY short of the goal.

So, how do you define success? FAWM is extremely successful in that they've created a strong, tight knit songwriting community, which was one of Burr's goals (I think). But two points:
1) Most people looking to create a community are also looking to monetize it. For a lot of FAWMers, the draw is that lack of commercial push. Incorporate more commerce, the site falls apart (or changes radically).
2) As a small, tight knit community, FAWM may be unsustainable. Look at its growth rate. At what point does it become impossible to have a cohesive community?

The presentation is an excellent example of "Why FAWM has worked", and a good template for building a similar community. The thing is, I don't think many people are legitimately interesting in building FAWM. Most people are interesting in building the next Facebook.

Jordan Hirsch said...

@John, those are great points. In fact, I probably overstated the case here a bit when I used the phrase "how to" - Burr specifically says in the slides that this is *not* a how-to presentation, it's more a list of principles that worked on the FAWM site.

Yes, FAWM is fortunate that monetization is not a goal (or at least, not a stated or highly publicized goal). Removing that element from the mix no doubt has a huge impact on how comfortable people are with participating. I wonder if in future years they might try to incorporate donating more into the overall site design, like they have with things like "respectful feedback" and zong-busting.

I'm pretty sure that the goal of FAWM is to foster a supportive community of creative people and help them create. The goal is definitely not growth, at least not the way growth is traditionally defined. My sense is that Burr/FAWM would be much happier with "I got my friend to join because he's always talked about writing songs but never done it" vs. "This ad we took out has led to 200 new conversions this week!" I don't think FAWM would work as well or be as much fun if it was the size of Facebook or something like it.

He stated several times during the panel that he wanted FAWM to feel almost like the opposite of Facebook, which is probably a big turn-off to lots of people who are interested in building the next new killer web app. But I found it very interesting to hear about how someone successfully fostered a supportive, creative community, even if no one ever sees a dollar from it. That was certainly a rarity in terms of most of the panel topics at SXSW, but I'm glad it was in there.