Building a Social Network

Last month, I wrote about Vinorati, a new social network site built around wine tasting. One of their founders, Lisa Roskam, popped up in the comments to affirm my spin that Vinorati is basically a bastion of wine fandom or, as she put it, “the world’s largest wine party.” Lisa and I continued our conversation off-site, and I’m happy to present it here over the next two days.

Vinorati was founded by Lisa and Frédéric Roskam, a married couple who live in France. Lisa is an English-speaking “Canadienne” with an advanced degree in Viticulture & Enology who works in the wine industry. Frédéric is an electronics engineer who comes from a family of French vintners.

Lisa and Fred Roskam

In today’s installment, Lisa talks about how the site has evolved from its genesis as a wine tasting journal that could incorporate the wisdom of tag-based music categorization (think into an unexpectedly social environment. Tomorrow I’ll post her thoughts on the challenges of running a bilingual site and the intersection between Vinorati and the professional wine critics and wine industry.

Can you give me a brief background on — what motivated you to start it, how long it’s been up, how many active users?

The basic idea for Vinorati came from two very different sources: 1) My frustration with my anarchic tasting notes and resulting search for a good electronic tasting journal, and 2) Frederic’s work (at Sony Research Labs) using tags to describe/categorize music. Hence an online tasting journal using tags. We were very excited about the interesting data-mining that we would be able to do within the sets of wines, wineries, appellations, varietals, etc.

We launched Vinorati on December 17th 2006, after starting work on the idea in May/June 2006. We currently have 321 registered users, 894 reviews and 7008 tags.

What are the main activities people are doing on

#1 Searching for a specific wine.
#2 Checking out other members’ profiles and tasting notes.
#3 Browsing wines geographically.
#4 Recording their own tasting notes.

Do you have a sense of who your users are? Age? Professions? Locations?

Not specifically, but they tend to be at the intersection of wine lover / tech geek. We haven’t yet filtered down to the main-stream wine fan but are rather still at the level of wine lovers who regularly read a variety of wine blogs plus reddit/tech-crunch.

Our users are geographically dispersed but mostly American, French and Canadian. I know we have a quite a few bloggers because they put a link to their blog in their profile, and I know we have a number of wine professionals because of information from my friends, colleagues and indirect acquaintances. Beyond that, our members are just wine lovers with widely varying amounts of knowledge and experience.

One of my immediate reactions to the site was that wine appreciation seemed to lend itself to social networking in a way that a lot of other activities don’t. What is your take on what motivates your users to use the site?

This is a big question. Wine tasting/consumption is definitely a social activity. Here in France we often have large convivial dinners with friends and family, where everyone is taking pleasure in tasting wines, sharing their opinion and listening to others… that’s exactly the sort of atmosphere that we would like to replicate at Vinorati – convivial, welcoming, open and lively.

From a more pragmatic perspective wine tastings are not just social because of the convivial aspect, but also because wine consumers very often want guidance and reassurance in their choices. The selection of products is too overwhelming to directly sample all of the options. Even when people do have a direct experience of a wine they are nonetheless interested in others’ impressions. Unlike with other products, such as music or movies, inexperienced wine consumers put more confidence in others’ sensations or opinions than in their own. They want need advice and direction. In my experience, even sophisticated wine consumers and professionals are curious about others’ impressions of a wine. Vinorati is meant to be a place where wine lovers/fans can find these kind of reflections from wine drinkers of varying backgrounds.

Since our launch members could have “friends” to make it easier to keep track of other members, then in early February we introduced a tasting group feature to Vinorati. Finally, we recently added forums to these tasting groups. The social part of Vinorati is becoming more and more important as we move forward.

Do you have a sense of whether people are mostly using it as a means of keeping track of their own tasting records or of engaging one another?

People are mostly using the site to keep track of others! As I mentioned above, I expected people to predominantly use their own tasting journal and occasionally check out other people’s impressions, but our users are very interested in what other members have to say about the wines in our database.

Do you see any uses of the site emerging that you didn’t expect when you created it?

Hmmm… this gets back to the previous two questions…when we were first making plans for the site we didn’t anticipate emphasizing the social aspect of wine tasting so much, Initially the ubiquity of internet access seemed to be the most important advantage of an online tasting journal. We neglected to think of the advantages that users could have in interacting with other wine lovers and sharing their opinions. Fortunately about half-way through development we started talking about these ideas, wine tasting clubs and how cool it might be for members to interact to share their notes about wines, etc.

We are now hoping that real-life and virtual tasting groups will be able to use the Vinorati groups and forums to share ideas and get an image of their aggregate opinions of wines that they taste via the group tasting journal and their corresponding tag clouds.

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