Development

Social networking & online projects

While browsing around at work today, I came across an interesting post on Bradley Horowitz’s blog describing his take on the relative distribution on the “phases of value creation”. I found this post via another post on Jeremy Zawodny’s blog, which I linked to from the links listed at the Google Blog. Rather appropriate for a post regarding social networking & online projects, eh?

The idea revolves around the “phases of value creation” was that it takes only a small number of active “creators” of content (such as someone who starts a thread or a discussion on a forum or mailing list), a slightly larger group of “synthesizers” (such as those who add to the thread or discussion by replying & contributing their own ideas to the original post), and a much larger group of “consumers”, who would be those that read & consume the content that is generated by the other two groups. According to his diagram (a pyramid), the size of each group would increase by a factor of ten as it went from creators to synthesizers to consumers. Though just an approximation, it brings up some interesting points about the amount of “work” needed to develop a highly-popular online project, something that has already been intriguing to me. I would like to add something from my own experience to rather interesting presentation of this concept – namely, the hidden factor of interest or need of the online project. Bradley’s post was given in the context of projects by Yahoo! – such as Yahoo! Groups, Flickr, del.icio.us. Each of these projects is – arguably – massively more popular than anything in which I’ve been involved, so take my following comments with a grain of skepticism, if you like.

I have personally started a large number of online projects, and with only a few exceptions, I’ve been met with less-than-stellar results. Two of the more notable exceptions to my string of weak projects are the main Hidayah Online site and the AlMaghrib Institute student forums. I choose these two because they have a very tangible return on my efforts, and they meet their purpose well. However, as I will discuss shortly, their relative success has little to do with me and more to do with other factors.

As for Hidayah Online, it was originally meant to be a site to host content such as articles, media downloads, lectures, as well as the Qur’aan recitation files that it currently hosts. However, due to time constraints & availability of media, it has migrated to simply a host of Qur’aan recitation files. It has become quite popular in recent months, especially during and after this past Ramadhaan (which roughly coincided with October, 2005). Also, moving to a dedicated server with a 10Mbps connection & 1200GB monthly bandwidth allotment has turned a site that used to be hosted off a residential cable modem connection into one of the most reliable websites for such downloads. However, neither of these are the catch. What has made Hidayah Online so popular, from my own inference as well as the myriad comments I’ve received to the same effect, is that it is amongst the only places on the web from which a user can download Qur’aan recitation files in “high quality” 128kbps MP3s (the folks at Hydrogenaudio would ream me if they found me referring to those as high-quality).

As for the AlMaghrib Institute student forums, while I played a key role in starting them up for Muhammad Alshareef (the director of AlMaghrib Institute), I had a lot of help from a friend of mine who is also a developer (he’s currently working on another project – Islamic Network). Once the forums were setup, they quickly became popular, and before we knew it, it had thousands of registered members, and thousands upon thousands of posts. This should be no real surprise, because AlMaghrib Institute itself has over 3,000 students across America, and that number is growing with every class that is held.

My point in describing these two projects that I’ve called “mine” is to demonstrate how very little I had anything to do with their success, other than acting in a supporting role. The impetus for both was that they fulfilled an existing need. I’ve learned from these experiences that one cannot, by their own individual will, force a project to become popular and successful. Rather, for something to become popular, it must be something that is wanted and used by others, and therefore, be something that fulfills a need somewhere, for someone. So, it’s simply not enough that I want to make a cross-referencing Islamic Database of terms and articles – it must be something that others want – others being the so-called synthesizers & consumers mentioned on Bradley’s post regarding social networking.

What are your thoughts regarding projects and the factors that lead to their success? I’d love to hear your comments.

3 thoughts on “Social networking & online projects

  1. INteresting, when i read the article on jermeeys blog, i brought it to the attention of my wife immediately, and mentioned – see, what his co-worker (the engineer) was saying, thats what it’s all about in the Islamic Market. (I was agreeing with the engineer, that they could have just built in in 6 months).

    in the last couple of months, we have also kinda decided to structure out entire company more towards writing social software.

    Though, certain communities do have a certain feel that seems not to be ‘replaceable’ such as slashdot, flickr, i dont think the same applies for any notable islamic online communities, just my thought.

  2. The key to the success of social networks is that you’ve put the power of (borrowing the terminology of Bradley Horowitz) creating, synthesizing, and then consuming completely in the hands of the community, with only minor interference from the ones running the site.

    The director of a site would actually harm the site if he were to interfere too heavily. One has to know where the project is going to lead in the long term ahead of time, and direct it before it reaches critical mass, if he wants it to go in a certain direction.

    The reasons the communities like Slashdot, Flickr, & others are so “irreplaceable”, as you’ve mentioned, is because they are fulfilling a need. They also came about at a time when it was ripe. Something like Slashdot persists because it feeds this need, even if it is not the most efficient (look at the number of comments that are related JUST to complaining about the posts on Slashdot).

    It’s a discussion that’s worth a more in-depth look. How to apply these common principles to an Islamic market becomes more complex, because we don’t want to enable people to do characteristically unislamic things with the software we write. The design, therefore, has to be clear from the beginning to lead the community only in the directions or manner we want. This goes against the more broadly-based principles of other social networking projects, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to direct the audience of a project. For example, take Slashdot – you don’t find many posts about cars, or psychology, or humanities, or other “non-techie” things, because they would never fly. And the comments generally follow that same pattern. This is due to numerous factors – not the least of which is that the content is targetted towards that kind of an audience. Moreover, the Slash engine provides the moderation & meta-moderation system, whereby the audience themselves can vote down inappropriate or irrelevant comments. Therefore, if you attract the audience you want, then put in their hands the tools to keep things working on a massive scale.

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