“Make it user-centric” has been a mantra for technology for a decade or two, or at least that’s what new technologists are being taught in school. There are obvious benefits in making software that doesn’t beat up the user, forcing him to do what the software wants instead of what he wants. VRM, one of my more recent interests, defines a number of principles with the first being user-centricity. This is obviously good, but an unstated goal is community building, which makes me wonder, should community-centric not also be a principle? Is user-centric + leveraging network effects (principle #4) the same as community-centric? What does community-centric even mean?
Certainly web 2.0, if nothing else, shows the value in being community-centric. MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and all the other mega and not so mega web 2.0 software is being built around communities. Technologies like blogs and wikis are community-centric. And still, many of these aren’t user-centric, see Doc complaining about Facebook. So, I’m not confident that you can successfully create technology that ultimately builds relationships based solely on user-centricity without just being lucky.
Of course, VRM has multiple principles, but do those adequately turn it in into community-centric technology? If a defined principle is “relationships are more important than transactions,” then do you enter the world of community based technology? While we have technologists who make software that is user-centric with the knowledge that multiple types of users will use it, and while user-centricity is not inherently single user based, that doesn’t guarantee strong community results. If that truly is the key, building relationship and stronger connections, then it only seem wise in stating the obvious.
There might be some fear in making such a statement, though, if we don’t feel that we fully understand what community-centric means. There are plenty of web 2.0 failures where people tried making technology for communities and completely missed the mark. That certainly hurts the ego of technologists knowing there’s this great idea that we can’t really seem to perfect or understand. It still wiggles its way through our fingers even though we continually try to get it under control.
Being community-centric means building technology that facilitates stronger connections between two or more interacting parties. While user-centric means building technology that lets the user do what she wants without getting in her way. So, community-centric specifically means building better relationships – friendlier relationships, easier relationships, more personal relationships. These seem like primary goals of VRM, and why I like it so much. If you look beyond the consumer/producer interaction as solely a market interaction, buying and selling stuff, then as a commenter, Alan Mitchell, on the VRM mailing list notes, you help people “make plans, administer, organise, coordinate.”
These are qualities, or actions, that make Flickr more than a place to upload photos and YouTube more than a place to upload video. Did they build this into their system, or did they get lucky by making really good user-centric software that also happened to leverage the internet effect (network effect) of improving the technology as it brings more and more people together? I’m guessing they got lucky as many of the pioneering web 2.0 companies first broke the mold and showed us what success on the internet could mean. Is it time, though, to start defining these community building results as key features of technology built today? As technologists, should we start being community-centric as much as we try being user-centric? I think so.