I’m currently working on a social website, due for a public beta launch pretty soon. Working on the project has led me tothink long and hard about the medium, and about social cataloguing in particular. This aspect of the so-called ‘social web’ is particularly fascinating to me, as I love organising and displaying collections. The web as a whole has developed some pretty consistent standards, all of which allow obsessive-compulsives like myself to pour hours into a website which in turn benefits from my input to a community, and the raw data of what it is I own and buy.
I’ve used quite a few such websites in my time, but the ones which have stuck are Goodreads and My Animé List; I also have collections up on Board Game Geek and Gdgt, and Amazon, although its features are arguably quite insular. Firstly, what is it about these ‘sites which makes them social catalogues, and where do the common features lay?
Goodreads is a combined book catalogue, reviews website and social network. My Animé List works on a similar premise, but for Japanese-influenced TV, DVD and comics media.
- It encourages its users to search a variety of catalogues (from Goodreads’ own to local and foreign Amazon stores) for books in their collection. Users can then rate these, arrange them upon virtual shelves to suit their tastes, add reviews or just appreciate the bulk of their collection.
- Goodreads features status updates quite prominently. These inform others – within the wider community, closer friendship circles or whole other networks (e.g. Facebook) – of one user’s activity within their own collection. One user can invite another to follow their reviews, keep track of what they’re reading, and offer to do the same in return. This ‘toing and froing’ of content forms the backbone of Goodreads’ community.
- Users and Goodreads both end up benefiting from a near-spontaneous side-effect of this activity; they can target recommendations. This seems to my untrained eye to be where social cataloguing ‘sites start to earn an income, as easy links to purchase a book your friend has recommended to you make for a very effective advertisement. There are other, more conventional adverts, of course.
Board Game Geek is a much older-looking website, similar to My Animé List in that their design places greater emphasis upon user input feedback. They’re targeted at more ‘hardcore’ fans, in relative contrast to the minimalistic Gdgt.
- “BGG” and “MAL” allow their users to browse large, manually-submitted databases of media and read detailed information on their releases and make-up.
- Board Game Geek prides itself on hosting a variety of board game manuals, some of which can be hard for collectors to find; it also provides links to market websites like eBay in the same mode.
- My Animé List features a prominent ‘recommendation engine’, actually powered by its users. By forming links to media which they believe to be similar and writing a short explanation, these users provide visitors and members alike with informed suggestions. It also taps into the ‘fansubbing’ community, allowing fans of subtitled animé (as opposed to the more common dub releases for Western audiences) to base their community on “MAL” ‘s catalogue.
Gdgt certainly stands out for its interface, but shares the same fundamental features as the ‘sites above – particularly My Animé List’s focus on informed user reviews and recommendations.
- Users can browse its catalogue of gadgets, find a product they may own or are interested in, and gauge its worth or find an answer to any issues they may have, all without signing up.
- The website is predominantly targeted at experts, although it encourages non-experts to make use of their input as two sides of the same coin. In summary, Gdgt seems to rely upon a particular type of user – one who’s enthusiastic about solving other people’s technology problems – in order to create its community. Maintaining a collection of your own is a secondary attribute to this, though it’s still valuable to its users, presumably to back up their status and expertise.
Social Cataloguing Communities
In all these examples, community is built up not from the catalogue, but users’ interactions with the catalogue. Each does have an impressive database to which any user can refer, in the same way they might at Wikipedia, IMDB or MobyGames; where these become social cataloguing ‘sites, capable of attracting an active user base, is that value shifts from the data to the user and their actions. I believe that the rewards here are manyfold:
- The user is drawn in by the prospect of curating ‘their own collection’. Although some may find brief and compulsive reward in ‘logging their collection, the majority of users do this as a basis for further social interaction. Users being made to feel like they own a collection does, however, foster loyalty and emotional investment at a foundation level.
- Interest can then develop from these collections in different ways: in Goodreads, the fun lays in seeing if your friends have any books in common; at My Animé List and Gdgt, it lays in sharing your expertise about the media and devices you own. These sorts of incentive – to compare, impart knowledge and compete – keep the users logging in regularly, and generating more content in the form of reviews and commentary.
- As a result of this, the ‘site owners create a community whose investment in the ‘site keeps them coming back – ripe for impressions by advertisements. The users are also motivated to generate recommendations as mentioned before; these have their own value to retailers and service providers.
That, I think, is why I find social cataloguing ‘sites particularly intriguing. They start with a catalogue, add social elements, and then basically rely on user momentum to keep the ‘site running. There usually comes a time when users take over the roles of cataloguing, allowing administrators to move away from databases, and instead manage this fascinating social medium.