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 Last.fm) 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 Vinorati.com — 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 Vinorati.com

#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.

Working March Madness Community

Bloomberg News reports that March Madness — the college basketball tournaments and accompanying mania that happen in the US this time of year — “may cost U.S. employers $1.2 billion in lost productivity before the winner is crowned April 2.” The problem (if that’s a problem) is that with the games being broadcast Thursday and Friday, “fans who should be working will be stealing glimpses of the action on television or the Internet and tracking the progress of their office pools.”

The president of the consulting firm that arrived at this estimate, suggests that:

even with the potential loss of productivity, employers can make the NCAA tournament a “good buy” by seizing a chance to boost morale.

It’s a ready-made event to create community and develop relationships,” Challenger said. “It’s an opportunity to take advantage of the distraction to build camaraderie among staff.”

I’m not mad about pushing fandom in the workplace, as it’s too easy to fall on the outsider side of that divide. But living here in Jayhawk country, where March Madness is a very very big deal, it does seem foolish to let all that good collective energy go to waste. The really smart (computer-based) workplace would set up a game viewing page that people could keep up in the corner of their screens with a real-time chat window to accompany it, so people could watch the game together and get work done at the same time. It’s not like we don’t all know how to multitask by now.

PicksPop: Showbiz gossip and social betting in one!

PicksPop is a relatively new entry in the how-can-we-make-fantasy-sports-enthusiasm-work-for-other-genres category. Like Fan.IQ where sports fans can get points for making correct predictions about games, on PicksPop, fans can get points for making correct predictions about… all kinds of showbiz things. This week, for instance, you can get up to 4000 points for your guess regarding which movies will do best this weekend, which team will be first on Amazing Race to get into a form of transportation next, and what color hair the model’s going to have at some point on some upcoming game show. Says the founder and CEO:

Celebrity sites are everywhere and we wanted to turn all that enthusiasm into a game itself– to see who can predict the unpredictable, said Tom Jessiman, founder and CEO of PicksPal. Everyone claims to be able to predict who will be tossed off American Idol. Now, as we say at PicksPal, think youre good? Prove it.

If you invite your friends to form a league with you and they get points, you get points too, so they’ve built in an incentive for bringing other people into the online space with you.

Anyway, the site is way too pink for me, and I’m not sure whether this whole fantasy non-sports thing is going to be a fad or whether it will stick. There sure are people who’ve earned lots and lots of points on there though, so at least for some people, it’s sticking now.

Blogging the Dark Side

The Time Being is the blog of Australian musician Steve Kilbey, of the Church (if you know one Church song it’s “Under the Milky Way” from the mid 1980s). Since his brush with stardom with that single, Kilbey has had a rough go of things, including heroin addiction and a stint in prison on account of it. But he’s been back on his feet, recording, touring, being a doting husband and parent. And, let us not forget, blogging.

I wrote a while ago about Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Doll’s blog, which is an amazing piece of diary meets performance art, but Kilbey may have her beat. His entries are all in free verse, very heavy on the disclosure — especially of discomfort, sadness, all that bad stuff — and he weaves a prolific web of hazy autobiography and feeling that reaps dozens of comments on each entry.

For instance, here’s how he writes about trying to choose a name for a new record company in a section of a longer entry:

images :
driving thru the weird dry country
thru charming little hamlets (dahlings)
arguing about the name of our new record company
i musta thorta million names
i was saying the bloody street signs in the end
bing bing bypass records i’d hopefully suggest
after some real corkers like illumination records
had been given the thumbs down
um reduce speed records…
i got it
slow records!
no no
wombat mill records…cmon its….!
hours n hours later
every thing that everybody said
had records put on the end
eg
why cant we call it fucked if i know records?
i dunno killa what do you think records?
hey do you know which way it is records?
sorry not me records?
i thought you listened to the guy records
etc etc records
its hard to stop once youve started records
and occaisionally this method does throw up some good ones
but itll just get shouted down in the tumult records
so only do this method by yourself
its not good to let em all in on yer secret source of material
but if ya keep yer eyes n ears truly open, lieblings
then youll find it everywhere
i promise you
yes i do

What’s amazing about it is how prolific he is, how well he builds relationship with his readers — creating an intimate environment of his own that they get to participate in by reading and commenting — and how willing to disclose he is, and, maybe most of all, how up front he is in writing about heroin and living as a recovering addict and trying so hard to disuade others:

i woke up early
the world seemed hyper real and hyper ugly
everything threatened me
or filled me with a vague fear or dismay
i felt so sad n hopeless
the world seemed black
this must be the world of the depressed person
oh pray you never have to visit here
everything hurts you
the sweetest melody
the touch of sunlight
the caress of water
the smell of clean food
everything is gross n disgusting
and my legs ached
and my arms ached
an awful awful awful ache
and my stomach was nauseated in every way
and i couldnt sleep at all anymore
sleep eluded me
and i was left up n alone
thru wee small hours that went on for ever
and all the time i knew that
one little sniff and itd all go away
and sure enough thats what i did
and it did
and then i was hooked
and it went on hooking me in deeper n deeper
and every habit was worse than the last one
yeah i tried to stop
and occaisionally succeeeded in stopping
from time to time
but always enticed back
never could resist a bit more
then i started shooting the stuff

You really can’t do justice to this blog with excerpts, you have to see the whole thing day in and day out to really get the effect of what Kilbey is creating here. It’s not for everyone, but it’s amazing. And so are the comments, for instance, some of what people say in response to the full heroin post excerpted just above:

well, yes. my brother Mikey just got outta rehab, this was his second trip, but for cocaine. he was calling me at 2 or 3 in the morning to tell me that the little people were in the ceiling and under the furniture, spying on him, so he couldn’t sleep.(I guess I told him one too many bedtime stories, and they all lodged upstairs in his brainpan, waiting.) Then the crazy violence, and of course all the extras you mention. my entire family (we can’t agree on much)got together for an intervention & I was the lucky sod they sent upstairs to drag Mikey outta his room by the hair. I think he is doing better this time. I love my brother. I hope he is ok.

Steve…I’ve never used at all…so I can’t understand the pain and horror. But I have lived life and I feel like I know a little about the strength of human spirit, hope and life….yours must be truely heroic. I hope and pray that all you want now is the pleasure of your muse, the love of your family and the awe of your true believers coursing through you everyday.

i guess most people have a story of sorts that they can relate to this one. i’ve never done anything like that, but i did have a husband that was such a fucking bastard that i began drinking heavily to “get away”…..and then i finally realized i wasn’t getting away anywhere but to even further down the hell hole, so i stopped. wasn’t easy, but just the same. our divorce was nasty, but not as difficult as putting down that bottle and not taking another drink.

like i said~~you’re an inspiration, steve. to have gone through that horror and come out the other side of the long, dark tunnel is amazing, to say the least. i’m glad you made it.

It’s almost like the music is the excuse for writing the blog, which has a life of its own.

To Promote or to Control?

This is a fascinating exchange on a Last.fm forum between a musician and users that nicely displays some delicate tensions at play in promoting one’s self in spaces outside your own domain.

Here’s the scenario: A musician has created an independent label page for himself and uploaded some of his music there. He’s then used Last.fm’s built in recommendation feature to send personal recommendations to users far and wide (a common strategy in some other spaces, but seemingly less common on last.fm). The response is not all positive — users who’ve received this recommendation have gone to the label page and left comments in the shoutbox that diss the tunes. The musician complains to the forums, presumably seeking staff intervention. He writes:

I want to be able to delete posts by little babies that can’t handle a recommendation so when they post non-constructive criticism I can delete the posts. Like when a whiney user like M—– or J—–666 leaves a post that is nothing but negative and counterproductive I can delete it and keep my page positive and open.

A few posts later, he elaborates his case by defining the label page as something that a (mere?) “listener” can “mess with”:

Why is Last.FM allowing a listener to keep messing with a Last.FM Independent Label holder? This may be an eyeopener for the other Last.FM Independent Label artists out there.

But his definition of (what he sees as) his own label’s space as a promotional space that he should be able to “keep positive and open” (open = controlled) gets no traction. A (non-staff) moderator defines a label page’s comments section as a collective space:

No one person “owns” a artist/album/track shoutbox, thus there’s no trash icon. Mods cannot remove shouts from there either.

Then a few users get in there and investigate the situation for themselves. They challenge the musician and construct Last.fm as a space that is about the listeners vs “what the music labels, media and so on tell us we should like”:

It looks to me from that album thread that people who like the recommendation have stated so, as have people who hated it.

If Last Fm moved into censorship and negative comments about bands, songs etc. being deleted that would ruin the whole point of Last FM for me – this site should be about music fans, their tastes, views and interests rather than what the music labels, media and so on tell us we should like.

So it seems the solution to this problem is to tailor the recommendations to people who might enjoy the music, rather than sending it to lots of people who have no interest in that style of music.

Another reader argues that this sort of self-promotion on the site should be expected to generate blow-back:

…you really need to lighten up. If you’re going to send out recommendations for your music to random people then you are going to get a few who say they don’t like it. If you don’t want that then be more selective about who you recommend to.Looking through the various threads/shoutboxes I’ve seen you really don’t come across very well.

If someone just decided to listen to your music and didn’t like it, so posted on the shoutbox that they didn’t think it was any good then maybe you’d have a point, but you did ask these people to listen to it.

I don’t think I’d like it, but your attitude has ensured that I haven’t even tried it.

As of this writing, the final post in the thread is a perfect summation of the tensions at play in here between the site’s architecture, the industry’s promotional and image-control concerns (as well as egos), the empowerment of fans that the internet provides through spaces like Last.fm which users have claimed as spaces in which they can define things for one another:

I don’t give a shit about recommendations; I never look at them.

That said [...] don’t be so sensitive. After reading this thread I was prompted to listen to your tracks. I like them. I even downloaded a few.

No matter what type of musician you are, no matter what genre of music you make, 99.999% of people ain’t gonna care for it.

If you put yourself out there, you gotta be prepared for people who diss you.

Say “NO” to censorship. POWER TO THE PEOPLE!

No matter what you’re selling (or giving away), the flip side of being able to promote one’s self to so many people via the internet is that more people are going to tell the world that they dislike you. It’s important to be savvy in understanding the norms of different online environments and watch what works and what doesn’t before diving in one’s self.