Starting A Social Networking Site, Part 2

Yesterday I posted the first half of an interview with Vinorati co-founder Lisa Roskam in which she discussed how what was first envisioned as a way to work the phenomenon of tagging systems to the benefit of people who keep wine journals quickly expanded to encompass social relationships amongst tasters. Today, we talk about the site’s relation to industry, the challenges of running a bilingual site, and more.

How do you think the site positions ordinary wine users vis-á-vis the professional critics on the one hand and the industry on the other?

For me, the strength of Vinorati will lie in numbers – of reviews for each wine, of reviews by each user. One wine review by one member might not mean very much, but put in the context of other reviews by other members and/or other reviews of other wines by the same members we are able to get a much more complete picture of said wine.

For obvious reasons the wine industry cannot be a source of critical information for wines. Glowing winery tasting notes can have limited utility in the decision-making process of wine buyers.

On the other hand wine critic tasting notes can be excellent source of information for wine consumers. Wine critics taste a lot of different wines and spend significant time educating themselves – they are experts. They can detect (and hopefully articulate) subtle nuances of aroma, flavour and texture that most of us would not be able to pick up. The downside of this heightened sensitivity and depth of background is that wine experts’ palates really do not respresent those of most consumers. Also experts are often drawn to novelty or a wine that stands out from the crowd, which is natural when you’re tasting hundreds of wine a day or thousands of wines a month(!). The average consumer looking for information on a wine does not fit this profile. Despite these shortcomings, consumers may find a critic whose tastes coincide with their own and follow this critic’s advice. When you find this match it becomes a valuable resource! Just to make it more of a challenge though, many of the expert tasting notes published are non-attributed or written by a rotating panel of tasters thereby making it is impossible for a consumer to find the series of evaluations that would align most closely with their own.

The difficulties of following one individual wine “critic” and finding someone with tastes that correspond your own is addressed by community tasting notes sites such as Vinorati. Average wine drinkers with varying backgrounds enter their tasting notes and average wine drinkers also search for information for wines. In one place users can see an aggregate view of a wine (via a tag cloud) plus specific detailed individual tasting notes, which are in turn linked to a members’ tasting journal where one can get an idea of the member’s tasting history and preferences. Instead of choosing among a dozen published professional wine critics you can suddenly choose to follow the tasting notes of hundreds (or thousands) of actual wine drinkers all in one place.

Have the professional critics or the wine industry taken any notice of the site?

At this point it is the wine blogosphere that seems to be paying the most attention to Vinorati and other community tasting notes sites. That is, wine professionals who also have a foot in the high tech world have found us . For the moment we are the only community tasting notes site available in French, so we may have received slightly more attention in the French wine web world.

We are in trial partnership relationships with a couple of creative online wine retailers who contacted us from the U.S. and France. We have also heard how our site is useful and interesting from a small number of producers (with whom we cannot pursue professional relationships because of problems of conflicts of interest). Other than bloggers, I am not aware of no mention by or attention from professional wine critics.

The site is set up to be bilingual, and I was interested to see your blog post on there about the different meanings that the same tag can have in the two languages. What challenges have you faced in making the site work in both French and English?

We are aiming to make Vinorati a truly international site. Trying to make the site available in both French and English definitely makes implementing each feature of our project more challenging. It’s not the issue of translating text, but more deciding how much to separate or integrate the two parts. This occurs at many areas of the site – e.g. most active members, groups, wine pages. We make a decision on a case by case basis so for some parts of the site the two sides are more integrated and for others they are more separated. In all cases we do try to show where there is information available in the other language, and make it easy to switch back and forth.

Groups are fairly integrated between the two languages. If you do a search on the main Groups page the results will show up in both English and French.

On the other hand, the wine reviews/tags in the different languages are more separated. Initially we talked about showing tags in both languages in the tag cloud,or even trying to automate translating tags (as mentioned in our blog). Often tasting terms are similar in the two languages ( e.g. tannins vs tanins, round vs rond, astringent) and some French terms have been adopted by English-speakers (e.g. brioche, pain grillé, sous-bois) which would mean that we could double the possibility of having information for each wine. Unfortunately the down-side seemed significant for our French members – their voices could be lost. The tag clouds for many wines would end up being dominated by English terms.

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What have you and your husband found most rewarding about the site since its launch?

-Email from members saying that recording their notes in this way has improved their tasting experience.
-The many positive blog posts about Vinorati.
-The first reviews entered by total strangers… very exciting!Honestly… the positive feedback from members has been most rewarding. Frederic and I are often very critical of the site… we see all the lumps and bumps. Someone on the outside has a different, impartial and probably less harsh perspective. It’s very gratifying to hear from people who actually use the site and are impressed (!).

What advice do you have for others who are interested in creating a new social networking site?

Early activity is very important. Try to inform as many people as possible about the site and get them curious before you launch publicly.

Develop a site based on an activity you are actually passionate about, where you are already part of a community. There are an overwhelming number of useful and interesting websites out there, visitors are very perceptive and quickly get an idea of the motivation behind the site. They reach a conclusion based on both the appearance and seriousness of the content. They are very perceptive.

Be omnipresent and responsive. If you are not excited and interested in using your site, why would anyone else be?

Comments (1) to “Starting A Social Networking Site, Part 2”

  1. Hi,

    We developed a online wine community called We also ran into the problem of bi-lingual communication…we found a great resource called that might be of interest to your readers.