January 10, 2006: I've been looking around at all the new kids on the I-hope-Yahoo-buys-us block and thinking about how easy it is to mimic the form of a successful product without quite understanding what made it successful. What I believe differentiates a successful participatory web site from a lot of the wannabes is that you get something immediate from participating. With flickr, for example, by uploading a photo, you get a uniquely-addressable personal object that you can link to and you also get an audience (and potentially feedback) for that object. There is a lot more going on beyond this immediate gratification (access to a community, the ability to categorize your photos, etc.), but the key is that there is an immediate benefit to participation.

This reminds me that Tom suggested 3 insightful rules for social software:

So, what I'm talking about is his first rule. The trouble with a lot of products is that they skip this step and assume that people will contribute solely for the benefit of their peers and/or the network as a whole. Take, for example, Platial, which I don't mean to pick on (in fact I think Platial is a great stake in the ground toward some really interesting stuff). In any case, I just can't see the immediate benefit to adding and describing places in the system.

It's so easy to get caught up in the network intelligence daydream, but designers and strategists need to think about the immediate payoff as well as the long-term generative impact. People will rarely work purely on spec unless they are really desperate or the potential payoff is large, but that's what you're asking them to do.