Ravelry's second function is to chart everything that exists in the knitting world—it is an enormous library of patterns, yarns, and designers. An army of volunteers works hard to keep the site comprehensive and organized (as soon as a new issue of a knitting magazine is out, all of its patterns are catalogued), and, amazingly, everything is cross-referenced with everything else. You can click on a certain yarn and see all the stuff people have knitted with it. You can click on a pattern and see thousands of finished versions. People use the site to look for patterns—search for "necktie," for instance, and you'll see hundreds of varieties. For many designers, Ravelry also functions as a store—you can buy PDFs of patterns through the site, with your PayPal payment going directly to the designer. (Ravelry takes a tiny cut.)
Finally, the site is a giant discussion board. There is nothing novel about this, of course—group discussions are as old as the modem—but Ravelry's forum is less dysfunctional than most Internet boards. The discussions are extremely intimate, and trolls are noticeably scarce. In the early days of Ravelry, conversations focused mainly on knitting and yarn, but now they're wide ranging. People talk about politics, grief, disease, pregnancy, child-rearing, Harry Potter, and Macs.
Part of the reason for the board's success is that it's stringently moderated, with a group of volunteers making sure that everyone follows a code of etiquette. But another reason is the brilliant way Ravelry has struck a compromise between disclosure and anonymity. Technically, people on the site are anonymous—you don't have to use your name or any other identifying details, and many people are listed only by handles. But as I've lamented, anonymity is usually terrible for online discourse; the less that people say about themselves online, the less inhibited they feel to act like jerks. On Ravelry, though, there's a powerful force that keeps people in line—knitting. Because everything you say on the site is associated with your profile, and because your profile houses everything you've knitted and want to knit (which, for many people, is more personal than a name and email address), members feel they have a strong stake in the site. For that reason, there's a strong incentive not to speak out of turn.
"When I was pregnant I joined a couple Web sites for pregnant women, and my immediate reaction was, 'These people are crazy!' I couldn't relate to them at all," says Jessica. "The people in the pregnancy groups on Ravelry, I get them—we have a connection via craft that makes a first impression, and that gets us comfortable enough to start talking about other things. You're adding a piece of yourself when you're adding something to Ravelry, and that's a big deal for the people on the site."
The only thing that bugs me about Ravelry is that it's useless to me. I'd love to have a network just like it for cooking. (There are some cooking social networks, but none with Ravelry's functionality and passionate user base.) Casey says that hobbyists of all stripes are constantly asking the company to branch out into other domains. The couple refuses to do that, in part because they don't have the resources (Ravelry makes enough money for them to live on, but not enough to hire a second full-time software engineer), but also because they believe that cloning Ravelry wouldn't work. Instead, they say, each pastime should have a social site that's built carefully to meet the needs of that group, and it should be built by people who are active participants in that group. So come on epicureans, help me out—anyone want to start Too Many Cooks?