A Social Knitwork with a Pattern to Follow

by Farhad Manjoo (The Washington Post, TECHNOLOGY & INNOVATION, July 10, 2011)

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 four employees; one is responsible for programming the entire operation. It has never taken any venture capital 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).

Ravelry’s success is evidence in favor of an argument that you often hear from Facebook’s critics: A single giant social network is no fun. 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 catalogue 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 online.

Ravelry was created in 2007 by Casey and Jessica Forbes, a husband-and-wife team in Boston. Casey is a techie – he’s worked in a variety of Web-development jobs – and Jessica is a knitter and blogger. There has long been a strong knitting community online, but Jessica found it chaotic and disorganized.

“It got to be a stress in my life to keep up with all the stuff that was going on,” she says. “I would be like, ‘I saw this awesome sweater pattern with a great modification, and I can’t remember where it was’ – that kind of thing would happen all the time.”

The couple had been talking about building a centralized knitting clearing-house, and in 2007, Casey started to build it. The plan was simple: He would create an online database for people’s knitting projects. “I thought it would take a few weeks and then it would be done,” he says.

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 kep 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. They began making and selling Ravelry T-shirts, and they raised $71,000 in donations from the site’s fans. They turned down an acquisition offer and instead began selling small ads on the site. (Only yarn-related businesses can advertise.)

Today, Ravelry sits at the center of the knitting universe – just about every yarn maker, knitting store and designer in the English-speaking world is on the site, as are a whole lot of knitters and crocheters. The site has 1.4 million registered users, although only about 400,000 are active every month. Case says Ravelry is still seeing strong growth. The worldwide population of knitters is unknown, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that sometime in the next few years, nearly everyone who knits will be on Ravelry.

I am not a knitter. My wife is an avid one, though, and she’s been singing Ravelry’s praises since she joined the site. Ravelry plays an important part in the ways she practices her craft. The site has three functions: First, it’s a place to keep track of your own work. People take pictures of stuff they’ve made (as well as of all the balls of yarn they’ve got in their closets) and post them for all to see. While everything on Ravelry is public, many people use the site simply to organize their projects. It’s got an elegant queue function, for instance, that lets knitters save patterns that they’re keen to start working on.

Ravelry also charts everything that exists in the knitting world – it is an enormous library of patterns, yarns and designers. An army of volunteers works 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. 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. For many designers, Ravelry also functions as a store – you can buy PDFs of patterns, with your PayPal payment going directly to the designer. (Ravelry takes a tiny cut.)

Finally, the site is a giant discussion board. There is nother novel about this, of course, but Revelry’s forum is less dysfunctional than most Internet boards. The discussions are intimate, and trolls are scarce. In the early days of Ravelry, conversations focused mainly on knitting and yarn, but now they’re wide-ranging. People talk about politics, grief, disease, pregnancy, chuild-rearing, Harry Potter and Macs.

On Ravelry, though, there’s a powerful force that keeps people in line – knitting. Because everything you say on the site is associated with your profile, and because your profile houses everything you’ve knitted and want to knit (which, for many people, is more personal than a name and an e-mail address), members feel they have a strong stake in the site.

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.)

Case says that hobbyists of all stripes are constantly asking the company to branch out into other domains. The couple believes 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 grouped, and it should be built by people who are active participants in that group. So come on epicureans, help me out – anyone up fo Too Many Cooks?

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