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How Vimeo Did It: Online Community From a Designer’s Perspective


As a fan of Vimeo’s, I was stoked to hear that Blake Whitman would be giving a talk at FOWD in NY. (You may recognize Blake from that time he had some questions about the homepage…) Blake’s presentation showed that cultivating a vibrant community online is, in no small part, a tractable design problem.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

Vimeo stands out to me because I think they’ve done a great job of embodying simplicity on the web. And it turns out that this is a by-product of thinking about their site in a really focused way. First and foremost, Blake explained that Vimeo is NOT a video site: it’s a community for creative folks who like to make and watch videos. So all of the design decisions are built around this core identity.

I’d argue that understanding the team behind Vimeo’s design decisions can help us bust some popular implicit myths about building online communities:

Myth 1. Online communities are like the wild-west: they work best when uninhibited by constraints.

It’s tempting to think that there’s very little mechanical or social control we can or ought to exert when it comes to building online community. After all, members need to feel like this is their space and we wouldn’t want to stifle engagement–especially early on. Vimeo’s approach challenges this notion.

Blake explained that designing for a specific type of user and imposing key limitations have made their online community flourish, not flounder.

For example, unlike YouTube, Vimeo constrains the type of videos you can upload. Another example: rather than deploying the standard designer’s toolbox for building community around content (e.g. ratings and reviews), Vimeo only lets members formally designate videos they “like.” Blake was pretty adamant: “Vimeo is not a popularity contest.” This makes sense when you think about it since two traits of a strong community—online or otherwise—are 1) shared identity, and 2) a sense of belonging. If other people in the “community” are trash-talking something you’ve created and contributed, both of these traits are strongly diminished.

Myth 2. Successful online communities require strong and deliberate social engineering

This myth swings the pendulum all the way to the other extreme. Clients often default into this line of thinking as a way of hedging their bets. Above all, they want to manage and mitigate potential risks associated with an open online community.

Vimeo demonstrates the promise of a much simpler approach: get involved and lead by example.

Vimeo hires community positions out of their actual community. Their staff are very active on the site: they engage with other members, are supportive where they can be, they make and post their own videos. The upshot of all this is that the team has a vested interest and and embedded perspective—they’re effectively designing their own community space.

To wrap it all up, Blake’s talk encouraged me to think about the cultivation of online community as a a multi-disciplinary undertaking, but assuredly one where design plays an important role.

To keep the conversation going, what are some other design principles that can be applied to these sorts of online environments?

David Gillis More posts by David Gillis