I first met Caterina at her beautiful house in San Francisco where she had invited Scott Heiferman (CEO and Co-Founder of Meetup) and myself for tea. I have a lot to thank her for because she was indirectly responsible for my ending up at Meetup. She had read my book about cults and recommended it to Scott. And that ultimately led to an excellent chat over tea and a game of Wii tennis on the way to my first Meetup Board meeting.
This is the first of two parts of the conversation I had with Caterina this month.
Is Hunch about community?
Douglas: How would you say community works on Hunch?
Caterina: So, Hunch is an interesting thing, because I would say that Hunch is not a true community website or product, but it’s a collective knowledge system, and what people are doing on Hunch is creating decision trees.
And it operates in a similar way to Wikipedia, where people will contribute about a topic that they know something about. So, for example, if I’ve spent some time doing research on which hotels to stay in Los Angeles, I can contribute to that topic. And so Hunch is a different kind of social software.
People are not necessarily going there to interact with one another or to make connections or talk with one another. It’s more of a place where people can share their knowledge with one another. It’s a kind of a culture of generosity and a way of showing your expertise on a certain topic.
Douglas: So it’s a crowd, not a community.
Caterina: Yes, that’s true. I would say that’s accurate, yes.
Role of Creator.
Douglas: How involved in the community should the creators of social platforms be? Like any community creator, should they be in there interacting and nurturing it, or just let whatever emerges, emerge?
Caterina: I think one of the things that’s very important when you’re building an online community is for the creators of the community, the company in this case, to be very present and interact directly with the people that are contributing to the system.
On Hunch we have a very strong presence. We’re all interacting directly with, and commenting on, responding to and basically helping coach, encourage and reward and cultivate the community that exists there.
Douglas: And is that something that you think is more important when the community starts and you can pull back later, or it’s something that’s continuously required?
Caterina: It’s very important at the beginning, because you’re establishing what the rules and expectations and parameters of this particular community are.
If you’re a monster truck community and swearing and trash-talking is part of the game, then you establish that at the outset.
Douglas: Right. So that’s important for the platform builders, like when you start a Hunch or a Flickr. But it’s also important for people who create their own communities on those platforms isn’t it?
Every community needs to establish norms of behavior and rules of the road.
Caterina: Yes, and I find that if you model that behavior early on in the process that it carries through.
I call the founder of an online community the “Abraham.” You know, Abraham begat so-and-so, who begat so-and-so, who begat so-and-so The Abrahams of the community are generally the founders of the company or the person who first creates the social software and whatever their wishes and nature tend to follow through organization-wide.
Douglas: That’s something that’s a lot of community leaders that I’ve interviewed also say, whether they’re Meetup Organizers or Ning Network Creators. Inevitably the character of the community is a reflection of the character of the leader. And that’s OK.
Hunch’s potential for community
Douglas: One of interesting things about Hunch is that you’re aggregating huge amounts of rich data about what people have in common.
The dictionary definition of a community is a group of people who hold things in common, whether it’s monster trucks or beliefs in a particular god.
You’re collecting commonalities. So the overt purpose for Hunch is to enable decision-making, but you’re also sitting on a huge amount of data that would be an incredible platform for people to start creating communities on the basis of commonalities.
Caterina: I agree, and I do think that there is untapped social potential that we’ve got in Hunch that will reveal itself over time. We’re in the very first phase. We only launched three or four months ago, and so we are just on the verge of being able to see likeminded people emerge, people who share your aesthetic, or politics, or your interest in bird watching etcetera.
And so, there’s an emergent community that’s latent and unexpressed. But there’s definitely that kind of potential in the future.
Douglas: And is that something you want to do? If you look two years ahead, will Hunch be enabling those kinds of connections so that people can form communities?
Caterina: That is TBD. It’s not clear that people need to connect with each other directly. For example, say you’re somewhere in a small town in Michigan and you wanted to know where someone like you would have dinner. You don’t necessarily need to know the person who is making the recommendation. You just need to know that you have tastes in common and therefore they would make a good recommendation for you.
Douglas: So you’re going to wait and see whether that’s a direction Hunch will take?
Caterina: Whether or not there’s an opportunity for sociality, that remains to be seen. That said, there’s certainly things that Hunch could potentially catalyze. For the special snowflakes of the world to find one another!
Douglas: Do you think if you started to enable people to start forming groups, would that be a strategic distraction from the main purpose of Hunch, which is to enable decision-making?
Caterina: Yeah, when you’re building software, you have to constantly return to what are your founding principles, and whether we are we giving people the thing that we think that they most want.
That certainly can change. You can discover things in the course of building software that you had not thought people wanted, but it turns out that they do.
Douglas: As a user experience of one, I found Hunch enormous fun. It’s not only that the questions are fun but it seems to be getting to know me in quite a profound way. I found myself thinking “I never really knew that about myself. It’s forcing me to think about who I am and what I believe and what I like.”
I don’t know of any other platform that does it quite the same way, that’s capturing so much – that knows me so well and clearly knows other people as well, and identifies similarities.
It’s like a dating site that’s done well, richly profiling people like you on the basis of personality traits and interests. I want to get to know those other people! Especially when I can find them when I hit a tab called ‘Community’!
Caterina: Yeah. I mean, I do think that we are still just scratching the surface of the possibilities that we’ve got for this particular kind of software. And we may very well find that its use-case par excellence is in connecting other people to each other.
Caterina: So, this is all – it’s all very early stage, and that’s why I enjoy being an entrepreneur, because you have no idea what’s down the road, and that’s what makes every day exciting.