Jordan Brock

Edge of the Web - Derek Powazek

Derek Powazek is presenting the opening keynote at the upcoming edition of the Edge of the Web conference in Perth on November 4-6, 2009. He will be talking on the “Wisdom of Community”.

Your keynote at Edge of the Web is titled “The Wisdom of Community”. How do you define a community on the web?

I like to take the broadest possible definition, so I’d say that a community is any group of people brought together by some common denominator. Lots of things have invisible communities around them – people who care about that thing – even if they haven’t ever met each other. The web gives us the power to find each other, which is why it’s such a powerful, and terrible, place for social interactions.

It seems that, given enough people, a comment thread can quickly devolve into rapid fire insults and grandstanding. How can we foster and encourage thoughtful commentary and participation?

There are two parts to this, and you can only control one of them.

The part you can’t control is human nature. People are weird, messy, and complicated. They react strangely to things. They behave irrationally in groups. And you can’t change that.

The part you can control is how your website interfaces with that strange mass of humanity. Certain interfaces stand up better to the weirdness of humanity than others. It takes a lot of trial and error, and the line is always moving because we’re evolving.

We’re all still learning how to behave online. It’s the first time in human history that you can be both alone and in a group at the same time. How weird is that? It’s no wonder we haven’t figured it out yet.

One of the benefits of investing your time and efforts in building a community is the the personal rewards that come from interacting with the members of the community. One of the perils of that can be when things start to go wrong and it can lead to heartbreak. You had a fairly public parting of the ways with JPG Magazine. Not wishing to get into specifics with you, but how hard was that to deal with, and did the community that you and Heather helped foster help you “heal”?

JPG was an enormous learning experience for me, both for what I learned about fostering creative communities, as well as learning some hard truths about founding a company. There are a million stories out there about founding partners in a startup falling apart. In fact, it’s probably what happens more than anything else. The only difference in this case was that I chose to talk about it publicly. I did that because I had to – the community that built JPG deserved to know what happened. But one side-effect was that many other founders and entrepreneurs came out of the woodwork to tell me their stories. It helped me immensely to know that I wasn’t alone.

The web never ceases to amaze me. When you approach it with honesty, it comes back a thousand fold.

With seriously large amounts of money going after the “Social Web”, do you see people having multiple social locations (eg facebook, twitter, flickr, Goole Reader etc) as a hinderance, or does this fragmentation actually help, by allowing us to compartmentalise our social interactions into different areas, much like we do in our offline lives.

Good question! To a geek, this repetition of signup, login, create profile, over and over, just seems like an inefficiency. But people are inefficient. We all maintain multiple identities already. Who we are with our parents isn’t the same as who we are with our friends. So I’m not as bothered by all these disparate digital identities as some. In fact, I think trying to meld them is going against human nature.

“Strange Light” was an intensely quick project, born from an idea and fully realised in less than two days, and seems to have had an incredible response both from photographers and from the web at large. Do you see these magazines as having their own community? Or one that augments existing online ones (such as flickr)?

I think that magazines are, essentially, communities. At least, the successful ones are.

In the case of the first issue of Strange Light, there were two groups out there: the people who experienced it were a community of experience, and the rest of us who saw the astounding photographs coming out of the storm formed a loose-knit community of interest.

I was hoping that a few of those two groups would want a beautiful printed edition of photos from the storm, and they did! What I like about this is it allows the web to do what it’s good at (connect people) and print to do what it’s good at (create a coveted object).

And finally, when the hell is MagCloud going to deliver to Australia? It’s not like we’re on the other side of the world or something.

The short answer is, I don’t know. But I can tell you why it’s complicated.

Most of the printed matter around you right now is printed in China, put on a boat, and then a truck, maybe a train, and then another truck, and finally makes its way to you. It’s horribly inefficient and disastrous for the environment.

MagCloud is changing all that, because we’re going to have print partners all over the world. So when you buy a magazine on MagCloud, it’ll always be printed as near to you as possible. That way the buyer pays less, the publisher makes more, and we expend less carbon shipping paper all over the world.

But that means shipping is much more complicated than just licking a stamp. We’re setting up printing partners as quickly as possible, but it takes time. We’ll get shipping here as soon as possible. Promise.


Derek will also be running a workshop on "Creative Community Building. Tickets available now!