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.
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?