The Interesting Economy

Like many great social software applications, Flickr began its life as something else. Flickr was built on a platform for a game called Game Neverending, which had a lot of great features including an in-game economy based on exchanging various totems that had different relative values. There was really only a barter economy, which left the "innate" value of any individual item to be pretty opaque.

Today, Flickr has interestingness, which is a measure of some combination of how many times a picture has been viewed, how many comments it has, how many times it's been tagged or marked as a favorite, and some other special sauce. I suppose revealing the exact mix would encourage even more people to game the system, but the fact that it's not disclosed has led to a number of attempts to reverse-engineer the system. I doubt any of them are/will be successful (Flickr can update/evolve fast enough to change the algorithm if they figure it out) but that's probably going to be an ongoing dialogue.

When I think of things getting gamed, I think of Clay Shirky saying "social software is stuff that gets spammed". So maybe economies are things that get gamed.

What I'm wondering is, how is Flickr's interestingness different than the economy in Game Neverending? Than Second Life? (Or in Evercrack or Neverwinter or any of the other gaming platforms.) Is interestingness its own reward? Why don't I get to level up or power up when I create something interesting?

More to the point, the in-game economies of these games translate pretty cleanly into real-world cash, with eBay amplifying the efficiency of the currency conversion. And interestingness in other online media (like blogs) is rewarded by cash in a pretty straightforward way; I can sign up for TypePad, check a box to enable text ads, and pay for my account or point the proceeds to my PayPal account when I start getting lots of visitors.

But interestingness in Flickr doesn't pay. At least not yet. Non-pro users are seeing ads around my photos, but Yahoo's not sharing the wealth with me, even though I've created a draw. Flickr's plenty open, they're doing the right thing by any measure of the web as we saw it a year ago, or two years ago. Today, though, openness around value exchange is as important as openness around data exchange.

So does that mean the right answer for cashing in on my interesting work is to ask for a penny from Yahoo? Or does it mean I should just make an automated script that grabs my interesting photos and posts them to my TypePad blog so that I can put ads on them?

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