The best social network you've (probably) never heard of is one-five-hundredth the size of Facebook. It has no video chat feature, it doesn't let you check in to your favorite restaurant, and there are no games. The company that runs it has just four employees, one of whom is responsible for programming the entire operation. It has never taken any venture capital money and has no plans to go public. Despite these apparent shortcomings, the site's members absolutely adore it. They consider it a key part of their social lives, and they use it to forge deeper connections with strangers—and share more about themselves—than you're likely to see elsewhere online. There's a good chance this site isn't for you, but after you see how much fun people have there, you'll wish you had a similar online haunt. The social network is called Ravelry. It's for knitters (and crocheters).
Ravelry's success is evidence in favor of an argument that you often hear from Facebook's critics: A single giant social network is no fun. Social sites work better when they're smaller and bespoke, created to cater to a specific group. What makes Ravelry work so well is that, in addition to being a place to catch up with friends, it is also a boon to its users' favorite hobby—it helps people catalog their yarn, their favorite patterns, and the stuff they've made or plan on making. In other words, there is something to do there. And having something to do turns out to make an enormous difference in the way people interact with one another on the Web.
Ravelry was created in 2007 by Casey and Jessica Forbes, a husband-and-wife team in Boston. Casey is a techie—he's worked in a variety of Web-development jobs—and Jessica is a knitter and blogger. There has long been a strong knitting community online, but Jessica found it chaotic and disorganized. "It got to be a stress in my life to keep up with all the stuff that was going on," she says. "I would be like, 'I saw this awesome sweater pattern with a great modification, and I can't remember where it was—that kind of thing would happen all the time.' " The couple had been talking about building a centralized knitting clearinghouse, and at the start of 2007, fulfilling a New Year's resolution, Casey started to build it. The plan was simple: He would create an online database for people's knitting projects. "I thought it would take a few weeks and then it would be done," he says.
The way Ravelry took off from there is a gripping yarn. Jessica sent out invitations to a few hundred of her knitting friends. They all loved it, and soon all of their friends wanted in, too. To conserve server space, the couple kept the site closed to newcomers in its early days, and soon they had a waiting list of a few thousand people wanting to join—and then 10,000 people, and then 30,000. Casey quit his day job to maintain the site. The couple ran through their savings, they ran up their credit cards, they began making and selling Ravelry T-shirts, and they raised $71,000 in donations from the site's fans. They turned down an acquisition offer and instead began selling small ads on the site. (Only yarn-related businesses can advertise.)
Today, Ravelry sits at the center of the knitting universe—just about every yarn maker, knitting store, and designer in the English-speaking world is on the site, as are a whole lot of knitters and crocheters. The site now has 1.4 million registered users, though only about 400,000 of those are active every month. Casey says that Ravelry is still seeing strong growth. The worldwide population of knitters is unknown, but it wouldn't be a stretch to say that sometime in the next few years, nearly everyone who knits will be on Ravelry.
I am not a knitter. My wife is an avid one, though, and she's been singing Ravelry's praises since she joined the site about a year after it was created. Ravelry plays an important part in the way she practices her craft. The site has three main functions: First, it's a place to keep track of your own work. People take pictures of stuff they've made (as well as of all the balls of yarn they've got in their closets) and post them for all to see. While everything on Ravelry is public, many people use the site simply to organize their own projects. It's got an elegant queue function, for instance, that lets knitters save patterns that they're keen to start working on.