Building Communities that People Love – BlueGlass LA

We kick off Day 2 at BlueGlass LA with what promises to be a killer keynote.  Ben Huh, CEO, Cheezburger Network and JR Johnson, CEO and Founder, are here to share their insights and experience. As a tribute, I’ll write this entire liveblog in lolcat (nom nom nom.)

BlueGlass LA communities panel

The room is only half-full and Chris Winfield mocks the people who are still asleep and missing this. Virginia’s already been up and doing interviews this morning. I’m totally excited for you to see them.

Brent Csutoras is moderating the panel and introduces the speakers. JR Johnson will be up first. is a place for people to build communities. I tell you this because I didn’t know either and I’ve had Douglas Adams quotes in my head since I heard of it (“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”)

He began building communities (virtual tourist) in 1999 back before anyone valued user generated content. No one wanted to invest in a company built on UGC. They bootstrapped everything.

Two things get people interested in creating content:

1. Recognition motivation — leaving comments, rating, leader boards, ratings. Foursquare and Facebook are recognition driven.

2. Humanitarian motivation — helping the community because it improves the lives for someone else. Virtual Tourist allowed people to “pay it forward.”  He thinks this is the more interesting motivation. Wikipedia is a humanitarian motivated community.

Give people intangible cues so they know what to do. He calls this “shoes by the door.” You know if you’re supposed to take off your shoes if there are shoes sitting by the door. You can set these cues by building them into the UX. Use colors and schemes to define it and make sure the community lays the foundation by modeling the correct behavior. If you do this right, you cut down on problems early on.

People are Messy

Early on in, they found they had a user who was acting out of line with the rules of the community. They tried to rehabilitate him and it didn’t work. They found that his interest was not building the community, it was antagonizing the staff. So they had to kill his account.

You see a lot of “freedom of speech” arguments in forums but the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to your community.

Remove the Roadblocks

Less than 10% (generally) contribute content rather than just consuming the content. People have all sorts of reasons and barriers: the trolls in the community is a big one. Increase accountability and you’ll remove many of those trolls. They use Facebook connect and encourage real names and real photos.  However, reducing anonymity is also going to reduce content contributions as well.

You Can’t Force It/Be Authentic

How many really big and powerful communities were created by a corporate brand? It’s very few. Virtual Tourist and TripAdvisor were small companies that were acquired. Yahoo and Google couldn’t have built Facebook. Corporations lack the authenticity.

Brent asks how JR deals with cutting users, because that is a really hard point. JR says that you need to be careful. If you have someone who really is just screwing things up early on, you have to be more ruthless about it because the impact of one person can derail the development in the entire community. You need to balance privacy with the reasons you’re cutting someone. He just reached out to a couple influencers in the community and let them know what happened.  His terms of service are intentionally vague so they could define what was acceptable and what wasn’t as the community continued to grow.

BlueGlass LA community building

Ben Huh steps up now. Their mission is to make people happy for five minutes a day. They run 50+ communities. You have to find a way to make each community work and treat each community differently.

5th most viewed channel on YouTube is less than three years. >1 billion views.  They’ve been profitable since the start.

3 short lessons from building the Cheezburger Network

1. Start with Passion

If you can’t pass passion, that’s the difference  between a corporation with a start up. Cheezburger just started because someone loved a picture and threw up a wordpress blog about it. They killed their shared hosting in 2 weeks because people just loved it. It was about passion.

Ben came in because he bought the website 8 months in.

2. Good Solutions are Simple

The LOLbuilder was a weekend project.  It’s super simple and it’s one of the most used image editors out there.

Human nature has a tendency to admire complexity but reward simplicity. Don’t overengineer things. People admire the ISS, the Internets.  But people reward simple things like the iPhone. They don’t want a space shuttle in their backyard. They want an iPhone in their pocket. [I want a space shuttle! It’s probably a lot simpler than an iPhone.]

3. Trust Your Users but Not Too Much

The business needs trump the needs of the community because if you can’t pay your bills, you have no community.

You have the ability to publish, via a community, far far more than the “media” ever can. Facebook is content.  The problem with a giant orb of content is that you can’t tell good from bad and it depends on the context.  There is no such things as The Community. People on a political site can go over to Ihazahotdog and they’ll be cuddly.

The community develops its own response. PunditKitchen punishes “first” posters by posting random wikipedia articles. Failblog just flames people. Your community is not just the people who comment. it’s the people who read and use it.

Communities are made of up delicate layers of users. If you market to them as a monolithic thing, you’ll lose the ability to grow.

You need to grow both the commenters and the people who don’t talk. That’s the whole community. Where do they come from? What do they like?

Invest in a process that’s fair and honest and open when you’re killing an account. The users don’t care about the troll, they care about what happens if they end up on the other side of the stick.


Can you speak more to setting the tone?

Ben: we take a pretty heavy hand in moderating comments in order to set the tone. They like comments because it’s topical.  They delete comments that are inappropriate for that community.

JR: It comes down to UI – skulls and crossbones send a message frex – police early,  give bullet point guidelines when someone first posts.

Do you allow people to delete and purge their own accounts?

Ben: Yes but we don’t make it easy, mostly because it’s not much used and mostly people just abandon account but yeah, we definitely allow it.

JR: Yes, if you want to delete it’s gone.

How do you moderate for the 97 percent who say nothing versus the power users?

Ben: Use stats. Tell the power users that if they can back up a request, you’ll consider it (never say you’ll do it, just say you’ll consider it.)

How do you poach users from Amazon?

JR: We email them and give them another outlet for their creativity. The content belongs to the author, to the person who wrote it. That copyright is still theirs. 99.9% of people don’t realize that the content doesn’t belong to the site they posted it on. All they’re doing is granting a license to the site to use it. I think people will understand that more in the future.

Can you give us more details about how to get people engaged from the start?

Ben: First thing you should do is find out about the people who are not commenting. Get the feedback on the rest of the people. We have rating on every single post. We make it fun. Train the user to give you feedback. I’m surprised by how few people have a feedback mechanism other than comments. Find a way to give people what they want. It’s not tricks or stuff, it’s about being true to the fundamentals. Create good content that resonates with your community and they will market it for you. That’s how you will succeed.

Susan Esparza is former managing editor at Bruce Clay Inc., and has written extensively for clients and internal publications. Along with Bruce Clay, she is co-author of the first edition of Search Engine Optimization All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies.

See Susan's author page for links to connect on social media.

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One Reply to “Building Communities that People Love – BlueGlass LA”

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