Thursday, July 7, 2011

Unraveling Uncharted

Farhad Manjoo,’s geek columnist, writes an interesting exploration of Ravelry, a social networking site for knitters and crocheters, touting it as a maybe-kinda-sortofa model for niche social networks. (He and I include these caveats because the success of a social networking group depends wholly on its participants and their passion for the subject at hand, not merely that someone creates a niche social networking site hoping that the Shoeless Joe Jacksons of that niche will flock to it and make it come alive.)

Here’s the meat of what Manjoo has to say about Ravelry:
Social sites work better when they're smaller and bespoke, created to cater to a specific group. What makes Ravelry work so well is that, in addition to being a place to catch up with friends, it is also a boon to its users' favorite hobby—it helps people catalog their yarn, their favorite patterns, and the stuff they've made or plan on making. In other words, there is something to do there. And having something to do turns out to make an enormous difference in the way people interact with one another on the Web.
And yes, this is going to segue into a discussion on Uncharted. You knew that reading the title of this post.

What I find interesting about Ravelry is how they’re able to monetize their efforts – something we’re struggling to do at Uncharted. Here’s what they’re doing, per Manjoo:

• Advertising. Targeted directly at their audience. Only knitting and yarn-related advertisers need apply.
• Donations. They raised $71,000 from their fans.
• They sell bric-a-brac like t-shirts.
• They sell original knitting designs via PDFs and PayPal.

Also interesting what they do: They have discussion boards that give their audience free reign to discuss whatever they want, knitting-related or not. That gets people going to the site time and again, keeping that hit count high. They have about 400,000 active users a month.

They’re also doing this:
Ravelry's second function is to chart everything that exists in the knitting world—it is an enormous library of patterns, yarns, and designers. An army of volunteers works hard to keep the site comprehensive and organized (as soon as a new issue of a knitting magazine is out, all of its patterns are catalogued), and, amazingly, everything is cross-referenced with everything else. You can click on a certain yarn and see all the stuff people have knitted with it. You can click on a pattern and see thousands of finished versions. People use the site to look for patterns—search for "necktie," for instance, and you'll see hundreds of varieties.
Uncharted can do all of that, right? We can find ways to monetize our content, to encourage our contributors to make money with their stuff, and to cross reference everything so that when readers find one story, they get a list of similar things they might also find interesting, right?


Here’s the part that we’re missing:
The way Ravelry took off from there is a gripping yarn. Jessica sent out invitations to a few hundred of her knitting friends. They all loved it, and soon all of their friends wanted in, too. To conserve server space, the couple kept the site closed to newcomers in its early days, and soon they had a waiting list of a few thousand people wanting to join—and then 10,000 people, and then 30,000. Casey quit his day job to maintain the site. The couple ran through their savings, they ran up their credit cards.
Where’s our passion?

I don’t know.

I don’t have the passion to be an entrepreneur, unfortunately for Uncharted. I’m not willing to make these kinds of financial risks. No one on the team seems willing as of yet to do this, either. That caution is understandable. But lamentable, from a certain point of view.

We also don’t have – yet – that committed community. Here’s what the Ravelry folks said about their fund-raising efforts:
Not only did we receive an amazing financial boost, we also received a flood of love. About 800 people wrote up really wonderful and amazing notes in the 10 Lousy Bucks group’s “Why I gave” thread. Jess and I are still reading all of the kind words – it feels so good to know that people are really happy about Ravelry. The stories are all different! We never imagined that so many people would come to our site and get so much out of it.
Passion. Passion. That’s what we need.

But how to get it?

Don’t know.

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