This is the first holiday break I can remember that doesn't seem to be rushing past me before it's even begun. I've been slowing down a lot, and indulging myself with binges in everything from baking (double chocolate walnut biscotti, my annual gift to our department office staff) to reading (I tore through Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers in a day, loving every second of it, and am also really enjoying Neal Stephenson's Anathem), and crocheting.
That last one is what leads me back to social software musings.
During my annual day-after-Christmas bargain hunting with Alex, I came across some bargain-priced sueded yarn, so I picked up a bag full of it. After I got it home, I had a hard time deciding what exactly to make with it. I tried a few patterns from books and magazines, but none seemed to work well with that particular yarn. Then I remembered Ravelry, a social site for knitters and crocheters that I'd joined this past year.
What's interesting about Ravelry is that it isn't just glorified forums--there are plenty of very active forums for crafters out there, but that's not what I was looking for. Ravelry is far more like Flickr or LibraryThing than it is like Crochetville or Craftster. That's because Ravelry is based around objects--yarn, patterns, projects, people--rather than conversations.
Like Flickr, LibraryThing, delicious, and other successful social software tools, Ravelry entices you to enter data and metadata because it's useful to you. It's helpful to enter your yarn stash into their database because once you've done it, you have quick and easy access to a list of all your available yarns--without having to dig through boxes and bags. Most serious needlecrafters have enough yarn to make that well worthwhile. And once you've done that, it's easy to add new projects that you're starting with your yarn.
But the real power comes from the aggregation of that information. After I'd entered my new yarn into my online stash, I could immediately see that there were over a thousand projects listed on Ravelry that used the same type of yarn. And following that link allowed me to further sort the projects by craft type (crochet only), by yarn color, by type of project, and more. That's what makes Ravelry so very useful to me (and the thousands of other needlecrafters using it)...the ability to pivot on different aspects of the data--the yarn, the pattern, the designer, the crafter, and more.
Ravelry pulls together a number of the factors that make social applications work:
- It meets the specific needs of a specific community. Facebook did this for college students, Flickr for photographers, LinkedIn for people looking for jobs or workers. If you build it, they won't come...unless you're helping them solve a specific problem.
- The initial hook is not the value that you're providing the community--it's the value that you're providing to yourself. Storing and re-finding your own bookmarks is the hook in delicious; being able to store, organize, and share your photos pulled people into Flickr.
- The value to the user grows as the community expands. This isn't true for most forum based sites, which simply don't scale well. But site that are focused on objects rather than conversations provide increasing value as they scale to more users. The successful sites scale at a reasonable pace, as well--including Ravelry, which continues to add users from its waiting list at a rate that doesn't overload their infrastructure, thus avoiding the "fail whale" problem that can lead users to decide a site isn't reliable or useful enough to invest time and energy into.
- The sites are well designed to pivot on critical data points that are relevant to their users. That's most likely to happen if the people building the site come from their target community of users and therefore understand the nature of the information needs. Mark Zuckerman was a college student. Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake were both photo enthusiasts. Joshua Schachter wanted a way to store his own bookmarks efficiently. And Ravelry was started by an avid knitter (Jess) and her coder boyfriend (Casey).
There are plenty of communities of interest out there that can benefit from online sites that help them connect in useful ways. The success of those sites, however, will depend on how well they get the above things right in their implentations.