Size doesn’t matter

I post hundreds of photographs on the web every year, and I don’t give a rat’s ass what the most popular photo site is. You probably shouldn’t care, either.

Really, does it matter to you if Photobucket (who got big as a third-party host for users on sites like MySpace and Xanga) or facebook (who got smart and offered its users photo album capabilities) is the largest photo sharing site on earth? Is there a reason to care whether Zooomr or SmugMug is growing faster, if you don’t work there? Does is matter how many users Yahoo! Photos (even considering that Yahoo! owns Flickr) or Fotolog has? Probably not.

Page views are an archaic metric at best (arguably, Ajax lowers page views, and feeds are a better indication of interest). There are no reliable numbers for web services and sites. (How many Second Life residents are dancing on the head of a pin right now?) The obsession with size is misguided.

What matters is where your friends are. Where you can find what you need. Community matters. Numbers only matter until you reach critical mass.

Giant numbers (inflated or otherwise) won’t help me figure out if:

  • You seem stable enough that the services/connections/information I rely on won’t disappear. (Bonus: making it easy for me to export and backup my data will alleviate my risk.)
  • I’ll get my money’s worth. Listen up: I’m willing to pay. I paid for LibraryThing when it was only a couple of weeks old. I happily renew my Flickr pro membership. God help me, I would pay for del.icio.us because it changed the way I track information on the web. But if I pay, I don’t want to see a single ad. And I have higher expectations for uptime.
  • The experience is fun/stimulating/kickass/insert relevant adjective here. That’s right, I can’t figure this out from numbers alone — I am not a lemming. I have been known to hate “blockbuster” movies (Like Armageddon. Look, we’re in space, but there’s gravity! Wait, no there isn’t! There’s fire! There’s a vacuum!) and avoid watching the Superbowl. Yes, I will buy the last Harry Potter book on the day it is released, not because four out of five literate people over the age of nine will, but because I’m hooked on the story.

Critical mass will help me figure out these things. I can tell if a site has critical mass when I see that interesting activity happens on a time frame that makes sense to my participation level — with room to grow. (First I had a Flickr account, then a pro account, then I found Utata, then I got involved in 365 days, and now I unapologetically spend more time on Flickr than I do on all my email.)

I’ll help the right idea (meaning, one I am passionate enough about) reach critical mass, and I’ll help feed and sustain a site that has it. Because it isn’t just a numbers game. Server logs alone won’t tell site owners:

  • If people evangelize their service
  • If people love their service
  • If they are hosting communities, not web pages

For social websites, critical mass means I’m not alone. Everything past that is dubious bragging rights that users — the folks to be known from now on as real people — don’t care about.