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Flickr founder: Creativity is human nature

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(CNN) -- Stewart Butterfield, one of the co-founders of online photo sharing service Flickr, talks to CNN about the explosive growth of his company and the future of the Web 2.0 phenomenon.

CNN: What does "Web 2.0" mean to you?

Butterfield: It might be a better name for a point in history, an era, rather than any specific technology, partly because no one really agrees on what the ingredients of Web 2.0 are. I think it's useful for describing the innovations that happened after the collapse of the dotcom bubble -- the sorts of business models and Web technologies that developed.

CNN: How can big business benefit from Web 2.0?

Butterfield: I'm not sure there's any clear path for them to benefit but we're starting to see more and more talk of Web 2.0 in the enterprise business press. A lot of it is not about the application of any special technology; it's just common sense and obvious ways of making things better.

CNN: Where is Web 2.0 heading -- is it another bubble waiting to burst?

Butterfield: We get that question a lot. People think about the bubble of 1999 and 2000 and bursting over 2000 and 2001. What really mattered both in the macro-economic sense and to individuals were the public markets, the crazy IPOs, the insane valuations and then the money that a lot of individual investors lost, either directly investing in stocks or mutual funds. You don't see that at all today. There have been some large acquisitions but not completely unreasonable ones, so I'd say no bubble.

CNN: What makes Flickr different from regular online photo sharing services?

Butterfield: The focus isn't around printing. About 80 percent of the photos on Flickr are public and searchable by everyone. In one sense it's a place where people upload snapshots from the family reunion, wedding or the birth of a baby or something like that but it's also a place where people go to show what the world looks like to them. It means photos (appear) from Kazakhstan and Botswana and the deserts in Australia and all over the world. In that sense it's a very interesting, cross-cultural, giant library. I like to think of it kind of as an infinite issue of "National Geographic," among many other things.

It's also up-to-the-minute news. Most famously, during the 2005 London bombings, there were several hundred people uploading shots from their camera phones as they came out of the Tube. We saw that even earlier in September 2004 when the Australian Embassy was bombed in Jakarta. Flickr was pretty small then. There were only about 60,000 users but still, before the story hit, there was a photo of the explosion that someone had uploaded. It was pretty remarkable and now you see that all the time.

CNN: Why do you think Flickr has experienced such explosive growth and become a phenomenon so quickly?

Butterfield: Flickr was designed partly to market itself. There are a lot features, in place early on, that let people take their photo, upload it to Flickr and post them elsewhere, on their own Web site or their blog, which meant a lot of incoming links. People using Flickr became a way for it to become marketed and because a lot of those early users were bloggers -- people who felt comfortable sharing their lives online and making information public -- it grew very quickly.

A lot of them are hobbyists or amateurs, even semi-professional, photographers who are taking beautiful or interesting or sexy or funny -- in some way engaging -- photos and those became really popular. When we designed the groups for photos, we thought one was for families and weddings and things like that -- social groups -- and one for photography-based groups.

There's a Canon group, there's a Nikon group, there's people that are interested in night photography or people that are interested in micro photography but there's also a whole range of wonderful and bizarre groups. One is called "What's in Your Bag?" where people dump out their purse or their backpack. There's thousands of members in there, thousands of photos and all these splinter groups.

CNN: Is this desire to be creative and share inspiration a new phenomenon? Where do you think it comes from?

Butterfield: I think there's a deep impulse in most humans to do creative stuff, whether that's music or art, photography or writing. Most people at some point in their life say they want to do something creative -- they want to be an actor, a director, a writer, a poet, a painter or whatever. Enabling and empowering that is a very powerful force in human nature and I think it's always been there.

When people talk about Web 2.0 it's this all-new, never-seen-before thing. If you think back to the 19th century, if you wanted to listen to a song you'd get the family together, go into the parlor and everybody would pick up their instruments and play a song.

Over the course of the 20th century that changed with the invention of radio, movies and television, so that when you wanted to listen to a song it wasn't something you made yourself; it was something you purchased and consumed. The idea of people making music or art or entertaining themselves is much older and I think more fundamental. A lot of the more creative outlets you see in Web 2.0 are a return to that more fundamental human nature.

CNN: What's the key to making online communities work?

Butterfield: I'm not sure I have a universal answer to that. Take the people working on Flickr, including myself, a lot of the development team and Caterina Fake who's my wife but also the co-founder; all had really extensive experiences with online communities, most of us going back to the days before the Web. We worked really hard but I don't think we had any formula for how to pull it off. Flickr could have gone in a million different ways.

A lot of our success came from George, the lead designer, and Caterina. Both of them spent a lot of time in the early days greeting individual users as they came in, encouraging them and leaving comments on their photos. There was a lot of dialogue between the people who were developing Flickr and their users to get feedback on how they wanted Flickr to develop. That interaction made the initial community very strong and then that seed was there for new people who joined to make the community experience strong for them too.

CNN: Did you have business model when you started?

Butterfield: We started the company that produced Flickr to build an online game. Flickr was a side project. It got more popular and then it took over the whole company but it certainly wasn't what we intended to do, so there wasn't any real business plan when we started. There's some obvious things and those are the core of the business model today. One is that people pay subscription fees for enhancers -- users can upload more and they get more features.

The second component is advertising. We've gone pretty slow in advertising. There's a handful of partners we work really closely with -- Nokia and Nikon are the two biggest. There's not a lot of flashing banners to re-finance your home because I don't think those would do very well and also they would really screw up what's good about Flickr.

The third component is more along the lines of a marketplace. So if you are a Flickr user in Korea you could have the choice of three companies that are competing on price for the cheapest prints and several companies that are doing stuff on CD. But also to help the users make money -- that's something we haven't actually started yet but we've spent a long time thinking about it. Everyday we see people buying photos from Flickr users and it's a very complicated and difficult and frustrating process for both sides. It's something we'll be looking at more closely and probably doing some stuff in the next year.

CNN: So if you will be taking a commission from users' photos, will Flickr become more like a photo agency?

Butterfield: We'll see how it evolves. To a large extent we're just making it up as we go along now and we don't have a very obvious and ready answer for what role Flickr will play in that. But because we do see it happening every day with news photography and travel photos, it's certainly something that makes a lot of sense for us to get into.

CNN: Since being bought by Yahoo!, how has Flickr tried to maintain its individuality?

Butterfield: I think Yahoo! bought us in large part because of what we were doing and it didn't want to mess with it too much in terms of the product direction and the features we're developing. Growth has been very strong and there's no sense in messing with that, so we have retained our independence -- partly through stubbornness and insistence and partly because that was the plan all along.

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