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The community spirit of Yahoo's Fake

Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake talks about spurring risk-taking at Yahoo and finding hidden gems on the Web.

To many, Caterina Fake is one of the heroes of the Web 2.0 era. As a co-founder of Flickr, she has a lifetime of cred among the geek set.

In 2005, Fake and Stewart Butterfield, her husband and fellow Flickr co-founder, sold their Vancouver start-up to Yahoo and moved to Silicon Valley. As the continued popularity and influence of the photo-hosting site demonstrate, they fit right in.

In contrast to Flickr, however, Yahoo is no longer seen by many as an innovator. Rather than build its own hit technology, some say, Yahoo has been relying on its acquisitions of Flickr, events-listing site, social-bookmarking service Delicious, and others.

Now, as leader of Yahoo's technology development group, Fake has been charged with lighting a fire under the tech giant's creative behind, and the company has launched a .

On Tuesday, the second anniversary of the announcement of Yahoo's Flickr purchase, Fake visited CNET's Second Life bureau and discussed attention economies, Yahoo's goals, the lessons of 3D virtual worlds and more.

Q: How do you spend your workdays?
Fake: My nephew asked what I do for a living, and I told him I write e-mails.

That means connecting people, solving problems, trying to get everyone moving in one direction--also, making plans and proposals, trying to invent new things, finding good ideas.

E-mail and instant messenging and meetings are most of my day, and I miss making "real stuff." I used to be a pixel pusher, which had a slightly more tangible output, though still fairly ethereal.

You used to be part of a small organization, and now you're in a huge company. How much harder does that make it to achieve individual goals?
Fake: Fortunately, my job is largely about how to make what works in start-ups happen at a large company. Before Yahoo, I'd mostly worked at companies smaller than 150 people. I was really very start-uppy: small teams, rapid development, all those things you take for granted at start-ups.

You have to have the supertanker and the speedboats.

At Yahoo, I joined the technology development group--new products, innovation, culture and rapid development. These were our mandate. And the guy who runs the division, Jeff Weiner, said, "How can we build the next Flickr at Yahoo?" I laughed and said, "No way, Jose, that will ever happen here."

But he tasked me with solving that problem. There are tons of amazing ideas in big companies, and no innovation deficit. But the obstacle to getting things built is mostly process. There is one kind of process developed for building and maintaining large-scale products, like Yahoo Mail. And the development processes for that are very different from what it takes to build a new product in a short amount of time.

Brickhouse, my latest project, was a process innovation, a way of getting products built fast, a way to encourage risk-taking.

What is Brickhouse, exactly?
Fake: A rapid development environment for new products. We just released our first product, Pipes (an interactive feed aggregator). It's really a means of getting all those ideas and prototypes and hacks built into products. Organizational and process innovation has been what I've been working on since coming to Yahoo.

But doesn't bureaucracy get in the way of nimbleness?
Fake: Exactly. If you have 200 million mail clients, you need structure, reliability, uptime and dependability. Those things are very different from launch fast, take risks and embrace failure. Bureaucracy has its purpose, which is to keep the trains running on time. But building in small teams and launching early and often, bugs and all, is a very different proposition.

So a big company like Yahoo needs to have both approaches? Steady, keep the trains running, and nimble, startup-like teams? Is that a model you think big technology companies should follow?
Fake: Exactly. You have to have the supertanker and the speedboats.

I was just at South by Southwest, and everyone was talking about "attention economies." What does that mean to you, and why is it important?
Fake: It's an interesting idea--that the scarcest, most valuable resource in an industrialized country is your time and attention.

There have been efforts to make "attention" more, shall we say, numerical, or recordable--things like Attention Trust, and Attention.xml, where people can "own" their attention. So if I've ordered a bunch of books on Amazon, or browsed these books, or made reviews of these products, Amazon is able to produce all these recommendations and I'll have helped other people figure out what, say, toaster to buy. Now imagine if you could take your attention elsewhere, so take your Amazon attention data and bring it over to eBay. You could use it for your own purposes, to find what you want, and help others there.

People love attention. People share things for many different reasons: connection with other people, communications, altruism, and promoting their own ideas, beliefs, aesthetics, and so on. But a lot of participatory media is about gaining attention from other people, from seeing and being seen.

So it sounds like you agree that building a business model around this can be a good thing?
Fake: I'm a big believer in what I call the "culture of generosity." I think that a lot of what you see out on the Web and on the Internet and what made me love the Web in the first place is that people are building, creating, sharing things all the time. Whether that is essays they wrote, discographies of their favorite bands or a little place to hang out with friends in Second Life. The Internet is such a wonderful place because of so many millions of people contributing to it.

So what lessons can companies like Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, AOL, etc., learn from the virtual world/3D Web model of Second Life?
Fake: There's a ton of stuff to look at here: The power of community and interaction with other people; the love of creation. Things like Second Life and Flickr allow people to participate. It used to be that entertainment consisted of mass-produced content that people in Hollywood or record labels would decide what we needed and wanted. You have so much of a stronger attachment to what you made or your friends. There is something more genuine about it.

At South by Southwest, just went bonkers. It was the ideal environment for it--lots of influential geeks in a small area, all wanting to tell each other what they were doing, and all talking about how Twitter was going bonkers, and blogging about it. I wonder: Was that an anomaly? Can small companies ever count on seeing their product explode onto the scene all at once like that?
Fake: You can't count on that kind of thing, ever. We very carefully built the community on Flickr, person by person. The team and I greeted every single person who arrived, introduced them around, hung out in the chatrooms.

It was a very hands-on process, building the community. And in the beginning Flickr was built side-by-side with feedback from the community: We were posting over 50 times a day in the forums. After you hit, say 10,000 members, or so, hopefully you've created a strong enough culture that people are greeting each other. It really is kind of like building a civilization.

You need to have a culture and mores and a sense of this is "what people do here." If people greet each other and are helpful, and stomp on trolls immediately and keep the trash in the trash cans, that becomes what the culture of the place is. And that scales.

Lem Skall (from the audience) wants to know if Yahoo has any plans for Second Life?
Fake: I don't have any visibility into that. But in our group we run a thing called Hack Day in which employees can spend 24 hours hacking on whatever they want, building a prototype and so on. At the end, there are demos of the products. And there have been a bunch of Second Life hacks.

Jeremy Neumann (from the audience) asks, "At South by Southwest Bruce Sterling was very down on blogs, podcasting, videos and other participatory media, comparing it to folk art which he said was really, really bad. Is it the taking part and the sharing that counts or are we raising the bar with user-generated content?"
Fake: It used to be when you wanted to hear music, you didn't go turn on the radio and listen to Christina Aguilera. You went down to the living room and grabbed cousin Joe and played the banjo.

There's nobody trying to be The Rolling Stones down there, or even Whitesnake. The "audience" for this stuff is usually friends, family, people like that. It's not meant to be judged by, ahem, Whitesnake standards. So I'd have to disagree with Bruce Sterling there. On the other hand, there are gems in all those family snapshots and MP3s of people noodling in their basements. And social networks are great ways of surfacing those really amazing things.

Interestingness on Flickr is a great way to do that. It looks at all the human activity around a photo and determines which ones are the most interesting.