Community websites

As a way of understanding the shift that social networking has caused, I’ve been looking for examples of thriving community websites. I’m aware of a few, mostly having to do with programming (e.g. Drupal) and music (Mandolin Café, Banjo Hangout). It certainly helps if there is a pre-existing interest group, but such a group is no guarantee of success. I know of hundreds of sites that sounded  like good ideas, but unfortunately when they built them nobody came to play.

I’ve thought about writing about the biggest success story, since it’s well loved in our home, but now I don’t need to. Farhad Manjoo, a perceptive and down-to-earth tech writer for Slate magazine, has just written an article about it.

The best social network you’ve (probably) never heard of is one-five-hundredth the size of Facebook. It has no video chat feature, it doesn’t let you check in to your favorite restaurant, and there are no games. The company that runs it has just four employees, one of whom is responsible for programming the entire operation. It has never taken any venture capital money and has no plans to go public.

Despite these apparent shortcomings, the site’s members absolutely adore it. They consider it a key part of their social lives, and they use it to forge deeper connections with strangers—and share more about themselves—than you’re likely to see elsewhere online. There’s a good chance this site isn’t for you, but after you see how much fun people have there, you’ll wish you had a similar online haunt. The social network is called Ravelry. It’s for knitters (and crocheters).

The story of Ravelry’s rapid growth is exciting, and I recommend you read the entire article for a glimpse of what is possible when an online community is enabled by sympathetically designed software.

Manjoo also points out that Ravelry’s success constitutes a frustrating puzzle for community websites in general.

The only thing that bugs me about Ravelry is that it’s useless to me. I’d love to have a network just like it for cooking. (There are some cooking social networks, but none with Ravelry’s functionality and passionate user base.)

Casey says that hobbyists of all stripes are constantly asking the company to branch out into other domains. The couple refuses to do that, in part because they don’t have the resources (Ravelry makes enough money for them to live on, but not enough to hire a second full-time software engineer), but also because they believe that cloning Ravelry wouldn’t work. Instead, they say, each pastime should have a social site that’s built carefully to meet the needs of that group, and it should be built by people who are active participants in that group. [Emphasis added]

There are lessons to be learned from Ravelry, but not the easy ones we are always hoping for. Amazon succeeded because it discovered that after building the world’s best online bookstore, if you took the books out you were left with the world’s best online store, a general mechanism that could be filled with just about any kind of shippable product. Would that we could simply take the knitting out of Ravelry and be left with the world’s best community website. Casey informs us that it just ain’t so.

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