Information Needs to Be Portable

If your website is devoted to a particular niche, you may want to look beyond the standard Facebook, Twitter, and now Google+ social sites to promote it. Be aware, however, that you’ll face a learning curve. It’s well worth scaling, though – and just incidentally, it illustrates the difference between Google’s and Facebook’s approaches to information.

Facebook, as you might be aware, makes it very difficult for you to move any of your information to another website. It even blocked a third-party application that made it easier for users to move information about their contacts into a spreadsheet. The social site started blocking the application right around the time Google+ went into limited public trials, even though the app came out several months before that. Many users found that the application made it easier to port their contacts from Facebook to Google Plus, which is probably why Facebook blocked it. It would certainly explain the timing.

Google, on the other hand, created an application that allows users to move all of their information out of Google’s services in just a few clicks. You can visit the website for the Data Liberation Front for more information on this. From the site: “The Data Liberation Front is an engineering team at Google whose singular goal is to make it easier for users to move their data in and out of Google products. We do this because we believe you should be able to export any data that you create in (or import into) a product.” The DLF created the Google Takeout product, which lets you quickly and easily remove your Google data from Buzz; Picasa; your Google Profile; and  your Contacts, Circles, and Streams, among other Google products.

Why am I mentioning all this? If you’re going to promote your website on social networks, or even add a social aspect to your website, in one way or another you’re going to be dealing with information. You’re also going to be dealing with the ways in which users deal with information. You may even be dealing with information ABOUT information, which is its own discipline (ask any librarian). You’re going to learn that users on different social networks deal with ostensibly the same information in different ways, and you need that knowledge if you’re going to successfully promote your website.

To elaborate on that point, I’m going to take a look at two special interest social networks that let you handle similar information, but in very different ways. The information we’ll be dealing with is books. The two special interest networks, LibraryThing and Ravelry, both let you add information to your profile about the books you own. But what kind of information you get, and what you can do with it, differs quite a bit between the two networks. Primarily, this is because the purpose of each network – and its users – is very different. It’s important that you grasp this point whenever you approach a new special-interest network.

Before I dive in, I want to add that both LibraryThing and Ravelry offer their users many fun diversions aside from listing their books. I’m not talking about Facebook-style games, and I don’t think either of them has advanced to the point of having Hangouts (or even text-based chats). But it’s easy to create and join groups based on particular topics, with their own rules; both offer search functions; you can connect with friends, comment in forums, and more. Right now, however, I’m going to focus on how each one handles books.

LibraryThing is a social network aimed at bookworms. It offers several levels of membership. With a free membership, you can put 200 books in your library; pay $10 and you can add as many books as you want for a year. After that, they won’t be deleted, but you won’t be able to add any more. Or, for $25, you can spring for the Lifetime membership, which lets you add as many books as you want for as long as you want.

It’s easy to add books to your library in LibraryThing. You can search for books to add based on title, author, ISBN, or even scan them in with a CueCat. You can have multiple collections, such as Wishlist, Currently reading, To read, Read but unowned, and Favorites. When you add a book, you can add tags and a description. You can also find out who else on the site has the book in one of their collections. You can rate the book, and see how others have rated it. You can look over LibraryThing’s recommendations for other books you might like; you can even make a few of your own. You can read member reviews for the book (if they exist) and add your own. You can see if there are any conversations on this book.  And believe it or not, I’m just scratching the surface.

If you’re on LibraryThing and I’m leaving out something significant, forgive me (and feel free to leave a comment!). I joined the day I started writing this article. I’d heard about this site because a number of my friends have joined at the Lifetime level. They use LibraryThing to help them organize their collections, and to communicate with friends about the books they’ve read. LibraryThing is well set up to facilitate this. Remember, the site’s heart and soul is books, so it helps users cover them in-depth, and includes features that let them enter books into their libraries quickly and correctly. This is, in some sense, information about information.

As a test case, I entered a recent favorite title of mine: Crochet Master Class. LibraryThing noted that 33 other site members listed the book in their collections; two other members had given the book a ranking (three and five stars). The site also gave me some good recommendations for other books I might be interested in (some of them were even in my collection already, though LibraryThing couldn’t know that, of course). Sadly, nobody’s talking about that particular book right now, but I’d still say that LibraryThing is serving its purposes quite well.

Now let’s move on to Ravelry. One could easily write an entire article just about this online community. In fact, Salon did. I’ve been a member of Ravelry somewhat longer – about a month or two – so I can speak with a little more authority about what users can do on this site. It’s dedicated to people who knit, crochet, weave, and/or spin. Like LibraryThing, it offers a variety of features to its users; unlike LibraryThing, these features are not book-centric. Still, the site does allow you to enter your books into a database. You can search by title and author, or you can even drag books over from your LibraryThing account.

I’m tempted to say that that’s where the similarity ends – and yet, at this point I find Ravelry’s library feature more useful than LibraryThing. How is that possible, when LibraryThing is specifically devoted to helping its users keep books organized? It has to do with the focus.

If LibraryThing’s basic unit is the book, Ravelry’s basic unit is the pattern. Ravelry’s library feature is optimized for craft books. Craft books usually feature an assortment of patterns. Every craft book in Ravelry’s database has its own page, “curated’ by volunteers in the community. The main page for the book lists the patterns in the book, with links. Click on one of these links, and you’ll get another page of links and pictures. This second page leads you to the projects of Ravelry members who have worked that pattern.

This ties into one of Ravelry’s other features. Members can fill in project pages connected to their profiles, where they link back to the pattern that they’re working, include photos of the work, and even make comments on it. Project pages include a lot more detail than that, and users can fill in as much or as little as they want for their project, but I digress. In any case, this means that if I want to work the Feather and Fan Cardi Wrap, a hairpin lace crochet pattern in Crochet Master Class, I can go to the book’s page on Ravelry, click on the pattern, and see how it turned out when other members worked it – to say nothing of reading their comments on what they thought of the pattern and how easy (or difficult) it was to work.

The main page for a book on Ravelry also links to forum discussions about that book. So if the instructions for a particular pattern in the book have an error that someone asked about in the forums, for example, I can see the link, follow the discussion, and know to be aware of this problem if I decide to work the same pattern.

It gets even better. Since the basic unit on Ravelry is the pattern rather than the book, if and when I get my entire library of craft books (well, craft books related to the crafts on which Ravelry focuses) onto Ravelry, I will be able to search my own library for a specific pattern using Ravelry’s search function – and find a pattern I want to work that I already own faster than I could if I had to look through my library by hand.

So, two social networks with two very different ways of dealing with data and information, yet both of them are useful for their own purposes. I wouldn’t want to be limited to using one and not the other. This is just one reason that information needs to be mobile – and that you need to truly understand any particular special-interest social site if you want to promote your own website on it. Good luck!

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