More social networking for wine fans

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Vinorati, a bi-lingual social networking site based in France for wine enthusiasts. Since then, people searching for “wine social network” have been landing on my site consistently, including, it seems Sagi Solomon, who runs another social networking site built around wine called Open Bottles, launched way back in late 2005. As I wrote before, wine seems ideal for social networking — there are zillions of choices no one can taste all of — which makes social knowledge pooling essential — and there are already a lot of social occasions built around wine (wine tasting parties, for instance, or the country of France). Like music, there’s also a professional criticism industry which your average wine drinker may or may not identify with. As Solomon says about his inspiration for starting the site:

When I first got into wine I realized two things – that my primary source of recommendations came from friends, and that the wines my friends recommended were better than the wines recommended by other sources (e.g., Parker or Enthusiast). My friends felt the same way. I created OpenBottles so that my friends and I could share wine recommendations.

From a fandom perspective, wine is also interesting in that it is clearly “high culture” in contrast to all that “low culture” stuff fans do, yet when you look at what wine lovers are doing together on these sites, it doesn’t look all that different from what people into things like low-class rock music do when they get together on the net.

I posted an interview with Vinorati’s co-founder here and here, so when Sagi wrote, I grabbed the chance to ask him about OpenBottles. I started by asking him about user activity on the site:

The community is growing rapidly. Traffic to the site is growing exponentially as thousands of visitors and members visit each month. I have about 50 winery members participating. The database contains information about more than 19,000 wines and 2,100 wineries, which is one of the largest wine databases from what I can tell.

The main thing that members are doing is sharing wine and winery recommendations and managing their wine collections using our cellar feature. Visitors to the site primarily research wine information and reviews.

Here’s the rest of our interview:

One of the things I thought was interesting about OpenBottles is that you are encouraging wineries to create profiles for themselves and their products. What motivated you to invite the wineries into the site? What contribution do you think sites like OpenBottles can offer the relationships between winebuffs and wineries?

My initial motivator was to get wineries to help me build the database. That focus has changed as the site grew. Early on I developed good relationships with small, emerging wineries. These wineries were producing great wines, but most people never heard of them. I realized that OpenBottles was the perfect place to make the introduction. Wineries get their brands in front of the community, and the community gets to find out about the up-and-coming wineries. Everyone wins! My current focus is on helping wineries convert online traffic into foot traffic to their tasting rooms.

In addition, OpenBottles opens another channel of communication between the wineries and the community. Through this channel, the wineries can communicate information about their new releases, offer discounts, special offers and other benefits that are specifically tailored for the community.

Finally, wineries and wine consumers benefit from the free exchange of information. Wineries learn about the tastes and preferences of their customers through the reviews they leave on OpenBottles. Based on those reviews, wineries can adapt and deliver a better product (and experience) to their customers.

Are there tensions that have arisen around having the wineries and their customer-critics discussing the wines in the same site?

Good question. I have not had any problems in this area. Our community values honest communication and we do not tolerate jerks. Honest, but negative reviews, are welcome and encouraged. Personal opinions rule in our community, and for the most part everyone gets it. I had one incident of a winemaker requesting that I remove a negative comment about his tasting room. I refused, and explained how this feedback is actually useful to him. He got it.

I see a number of parallels between online social groups for wine, and those for music, film, tv shows, and so on. Bringing the wineries and buffs together on OpenBottles, seems to parallel MySpace, but with vintners instead of bands. What are your thoughts about this?

That’s a great observation. I’m a believer in applying lessons learned by other people to save time and money. I try to mimic MySpace where I think it is appropriate. MySpace did a lot of things right, and it also did a lot of things wrong. For one thing, MySpace made the community personal. I think that’s key. One thing MySpace isn’t doing right is that it is losing focus. It started with a music focus, but it is straying from that. I think that’s a mistake. OpenBottles is a wine community, and that is where our focus will remain. I want to make sure that we are always providing our members with relevant, useful and actionable information. I will continue to incorporate features that worked well in other communities to the extent that they add value to our community. I’m always looking for ways to build a stronger, more active community.

Are there any ways in which users have surprised you with the uses they’ve made of the site?

I strongly believe in asking the community for feedback and building features that address the community’s needs. In that regard, the uses the community makes of the site are the uses they requested. For example, the community uses the winery reviews to plan wine tasting trips. That is not something I contemplated originally, but it is such a good use of the data that I plan on introducing some features to make it easier to do this kind of planning. Another example is the community using the information from the site in other settings, such as professional networking events. There has also been talk about using the wine community to build a professional network. I’m looking into how this can be accommodated as well.

What have you found to be the biggest challenges of building a social networking site?

The biggest challenge of building the wine community is getting people to contribute. I’ve found that most wine drinkers expect wine reviews to read a certain way (like Parker’s reviews). They are therefore afraid of sounding inexperienced or of being wrong. This is a huge challenge, and one that will take time to resolve. One of the ways I try to help people get over this fear is to focus the rating and reviewing process on the personal experience rather than the “technical” aspects of wine. No one can argue with my opinion about whether or not I liked the wine or not. Simplifying the rating system has been useful at all. The 100-point scales are difficult to apply practically (what’s the difference between an 88 and a 91?), and they are easy to skew. If you allow people to respond in a non-committed answer (“neutral” or “3 out of 5”), they will, and the data is useless. Our rating system is easy to understand, is based on personal experiences and is easy to standardize. All of these elements encourage members to share.

What advice would you offer others who are interested in creating online social spaces for people to discuss their favorite hobbies?

First and foremost, I would recommend that they have a focus. Lack of focus is death in this space. Second, I would encourage them to always communicate with the community to find out what it’s doing, what it wants, what’s working and what’s not. I interact with my members regularly and I give them many ways to reach me. Finally, I would focus on introducing tools to help people share information quickly and easily. The key is to get useful information disseminated as quickly as possible, and to standardize it for quick consumption. With wine, I created the “Liked By” rating as shorthand for what the community thought about the wine. More detail is easily accessible, if that is what the visitor wants. Finally, I would recommend that anyone starting a community should have passion for the subject. That passion should infect every aspect of the community from features to its members. Passion is what holds the community together.

Map of Online Community

This is making the rounds, but I dreaded the thought that any of you might not see it, so if you haven’t, here it is:

Evidently, I live in the Southern Hemisphere…You?

Fans Organize to Buy Teams! Boundaries Melt!

The lines between fans and professionals have never been as clear as one might think. After all, is there anyone who grows up to be a movie director who wasn’t a movie fan? Or a sports coach who didn’t care much about the sport? Not long ago I got into a discussion with someone who’d been reading a lot of critical media approaches and argued (crude oversimplification follows) that the culture industry holds the power while the fans are their oppressed dupes. I asked what happens when fans get hired into the culture industry. Does the fact that they were fans suddenly become irrelevant? Do they turn magically from duped to duper? Or is it all a lot fuzzier that that?

Fuzzy as that boundary’s been, the net is making it fuzzier than ever what with mp3 bloggers getting paid radio gigs and fansite creators getting hired by record companies to run their technology. But here’s a great example of just how darn fuzzy it could get. The BBC reports on a website, MyFootballClub, that has the goal of getting 50,000 fans to register, at which point they’ll be asked to pay £35 each (£1.4m total) so that they can buy their own football team. Members, says the site, “will attempt to guide the club up the leagues, sharing equal ownership and control. Just like a football management game – but for real.” The site’s creator, Will Brooks describes it to the BBC as “a vehicle that will pool fans’ opinions, passion and wealth and turn fantasy football into reality.” He describes watching a team go broke in the 1980s:

“I looked around at the 3,000 fans who had turned up and was left thinking that if everyone chipped in we could buy the club – but then there was no way of mobilising that feeling. The internet changes all that.”

The effort is not spurred only by the chance to play with real people instead of fantasy leagues, it’s also an effort to restore love to a game that the professionals view only in terms of profit:

“I’ve always had the notion of a group of fans putting money into a club and not taking it out – it is a potent force for good as most owners look at clubs as a way of making money.”

“I think some supporters of some big Premiership clubs feel as though they are a little out of touch with football these days.

Apparently the site’s doing pretty well, at least among journalists:

Only a couple of days after being launched with minimal publicity, the scheme has already generated enormous interest on the Internet and Brooks has been fielding calls from journalists as far afield as Spain.

The website has a list of 15 clubs – including Manchester City and Arsenal – which supporters want to buy, though Brooks says it is more likely the money raised will be used to buy a lower league club.

One of the things that makes fandom work so well as a social activity is that for every shared passion, there are also things about which fans disagree. That gives them plenty to discuss. So it’s mighty hard to imagine 50,000 fans actually succeeding in being organized, cooperative, and agreeable enough to make the kinds of decisions that running a team requires without falling into bitter power struggles amongst themselves.

This is a little reminiscent of this effort to involve fans in running a baseball team while making a reality tv show, but far more radical. For all the coverage of the baseball experiment when it launched, there’s been deafening silence on looking at how it went (imagine that), but the relative paucity of posts and comments on the official site here make me wonder if it really succeeded in increasing interest amongst fans as well as media. But then, if they’d OWNED the team…