The Ravelry.com Phenomenon: Social and Technological Convergence
A few of weeks ago, I received my invitation to join an online community of fiber arts enthusiasts, Ravelry.com. Still in its beta testing phase since this summer, Ravelry is comprised of wikis, discussion forums, photo pools, message service, social bookmarking, blog reader and friend-finding functions. This one website integrates my accounts and services of other sites into a single place. After I set up my profile, Ravelry linked to my Flickr photo account to display my knitting projects, and to my LiveJournal blog to display recent posts. It even enabled me to link specific posts to knitting projects. In the future, there will be a link to my Bloglines and Del.icio.us accounts. However, Ravelry is not just a convergence of separate services. It is a convergence, for me, of groups and individuals that were once separate social circles.
The same week I joined, I found that my friends from local fiber groups, managed with Yahoo! Groups mailing lists, had formed identical groups forums on Ravelry. Online friends I'd met through LiveJournal's communities appeared as members of similarly titled groups on Ravelry. (Oddly, long-established fiber arts community websites have mini-forums at Ravelry. For example, Crochetville.org and Craftster.org both have satellite groups. Ravelry's services become a complimentary support to their members.) All of these friends, who may not know each other, can now "see" each other through my profile's friend list.
Ravelry.com is also a merger between what we usually think of as a nearly thousand-year-old handicraft with latest Internet technology, resulting in extraordinary results. According to a recent news update on the site, there are 35,500 users, 265,000 projects in the database (175,000 are finished objects with photos), and 700 people joining each day. With all this user-added information processed by Ravelry, I can do all sorts of neat tricks. Let's say I'm roaming through the photo pool of a lace forum. I see a pattern I like and click on the name of it. I am taken to a page which has displays photos of all the member projects made with the very same pattern, all blog posts about the pattern, all yarns that members have used to make the project, and a link to the designer's profile. I click on the name of someone who made a particularly attractive version. I then can see a page which shows me her notes, who favorites her version, and a list of comments people have made about it. From there, I can peek at her collection of all project photos, blog posts, friends info, knitting books she owns, groups she belongs to, bookmarks of favorite patterns and designers, and even the queue of things she wants to make. Maybe I'll find something there that inspires me enough to add it to my queue or bookmark it. Or I might find her interests so similar to mine, I "friend" her.
Ravelry's technology also enables members to make friends - a new, more targeted version of the local knitting circle that meets on Saturday afternoons. It now hosts about 2280 specialized groups, everything from breastfeeding knitters, to knitters who watch House, to a depressive disorder knitting group. General interest groups, like "Sweater Design," tend to be more popularly subscribed to and have frequent postings. The largest group has 2900+ subscribers, roughly 12% of total membership. I find that the very specific interest groups I subscribe to are hardly active at all, with no posts for days and occasional additions to the group photo pool. Perhaps the reason for this is because most "Ravelers" only have time to commit to a few groups and select the more active ones. Or, like me, they find themselves more committed to other online communities that they already belong to.
The integration of technology, social connectivity, and fiber arts by Ravelry is fascinating to me, its functionality and ease of use impressive. Although the owners intend to add an online chat function as well (and maybe video? *hint-hint*), obviously these technological innovations will never replace the experience of hanging out at the local knitting meetup or yarn shop. But the influence on fiber enthusiasts is great nonetheless - connecting people who once were alone plying away at their craft and inspiring newcomers to the fiber arts.