Damned with faint praise?

On my regular Technorati blog reactions rounds this morning, I came across a post about Protagonize and niche social networks by social media maven Chris Brogan this morning. While I appreciate the moment he took to look at the site, I think that Protagonize deserves more than a cursory glance. There’s a lot more going on under the surface than a brief inspection will reveal.

Immediately concerned by the faintly negative overtones of the post, I added a relatively diplomatic comment as a knee-jerk response. Upon further consideration, I realize this was a mistake. After re-reading Mr. Brogan’s criticisms (and I’m all about being constructive), as well as those of his commenters, I think they missed the boat entirely in their assessment of the site.

Not your… err… little sister’s social network

The way I see it, Protagonize may have some of the elements of a social network, but at its heart it is a collaborative creative writing tool that happens to have developed a thriving author community around it. The social aspect is not the primary focus at all — it’s an additional component that lets authors discuss and debate their creations, but it’s not the core foundation of the site. Pure-play social networks have been done to death, and I don’t want to reinvent the wheel here. People are already experiencing social network fatigue. Treating it as such does a disservice to our authors, who are likely member of several social networks already, and are probably completely fed up with maintaining dozens of identities across the board, anyhow.

To me, it seems as though most of the self-styled analysts, pundits and consultants involved in “social media” (which seems redundant — is all media not inherently social?) are more concerned with complexity: in-depth personalization options, and glossy AJAX features like an on-the-fly thesaurus and visual story-building tools, which I don’t consider to be core features in this kind of application. They’re shiny Web 2.0 baubles that I’d love to add once the site’s core functionality is complete, but I still have a lot of work to do on that front, as you’d be aware of if you read the blog regularly.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this industry, is that you’ll go far if you do one thing, and do it well. There a lot to be said for simplicity, especially in a traditionally non new media-friendly market like literature and the arts. Marcus Frind‘s Plentyoffish is a perfect example of this ethos. It may not be pretty, but it serves its purpose perfectly. Adding features for the sake of it isn’t necessarily going to improve your user experience, especially if only 20% of your users use features that you’re spending 80% of your time and budget on to develop.

Drawing comparisons

The main concern here, apparently, is that the site isn’t innovative or creative enough to stand out in a crowded sea of other niche social networks. I think the fundamental premise of this argument is flawed: Protagonize is not a social network, per se. It’s not trying to compete with Ning, LinkedIn, or Facebook, or any of the hundreds (thousands?) of other social networks out there. Sure, it’s a niche market collaborative site, and there are definitely some competitors to the site out there, but they don’t fall into that gaggle of similar undertakings. And as a friend of mine pointed out upon reading the article, “Is Fidonet a social network? How about Usenet?” … Protagonize may have a community, but that does not in itself make it a social network.

As much of the Protagonize author community is aware of, I’m a one-man show designing and building the site. And I’m not going to apologize for features I haven’t had the time or necessity to build yet — I have a site roadmap and there’s a lot of exciting stuff coming down the pipe that many of you are keen to get your hands on. But Protagonize is not exactly in the same ballpark as a well-funded firm sitting pretty in the Valley, with an R&D budget there to blow money on developing cool but not exactly cost-effective features only a few people may even look at — Digg Labs, anyone?

Thus, comparing Protagonize to sites backed by ungodly amounts of venture capital and large development teams is fine and dandy, but wholly inaccurate. I do this in my spare time, hold down a separate day job, and have no staff to pay, no money invested aside from trivial hosting costs at ServerBeach and a Facebook ad (yes, one ad!) that barely crosses into the 3-figures-a-month territory. My operating costs are nil, especially considering I don’t even earn a salary from it. :)

Crossed wires

I find it somewhat contradictory to say that on one hand, we don’t have enough proprietary innovation or creative features, and on the other hand, it’s fine to suggest that Flickr (err, Yahoo) purchase Aviary, Picnik, and every other company with a little buzz on TechCrunch because they’re missing crucial elements as well. Flickr seems to have done just fine for themselves in my books (although if they had waited a year, they might have gotten a better valuation…), having added features like video well after the fact and having multiplied in size many times over since having been acquired.

Suggesting that we leverage something like ZLoop (yet another VC-backed startup, natch) to store and share profile data is altruistic, but also naive. I’d prefer to use a more stable, open, and distributed system like OpenID for identity, or Google’s OpenSocial platform to share profile information, and not be dependent on another commercial site’s stability for it. As much as I’d love to let all of our membership information be centralized and shared with other networks, it’s not in the cards right now, primarily due to scope of work, time requirements, and financial limitations. If I were to take on venture capital, mind you… uhh, nix that thought for now.

Misplaced demands

While much of what Mr. Brogan asks for falls into the “nice-to-have” category, none of it is crucial. It may improve the site’s appeal to VCs, social media pundits and analysts, but it’s not going to be the deciding factor in whether an aspiring writer will decide to use the site or not.

What is crucial is improving the tools available to the site’s authors to make writing more streamlined. Some of the suggestions he makes are valid, and I’m working on ways to make the process of writing of story segments even more collaborative that should actually be pretty useful to the site’s authors. What I’d like to do is improve the actual task of writing, collaborating, and disseminating your creative product (all of which is already licensed under Creative Commons, by the way.)

Planned additions like the Protagonize Facebook application will help spread the word about your content, which I think our authors will appreciate. Tools that were suggested in the post such as mark-ups and overlay editing would definitely be of value, and as requested by several Protagonize authors, the site will allow the annotating of content by story authors in the near future.

Putting the fun in collaboration

Finally, there’s the “fun” aspect. People enjoy collaborating on stories. It’s a bit of a game to many, though a large percentage of authors would like to receive more meaningful feedback on their writing, which is understandable and will happen down the road. However, much of the feedback I’ve seen from social media blogs ignores this fact in favour of adding features that won’t really enhance the user’s creative experience or enjoyment in writing. It might be that they’re not our target audience, and most of the authors on the site are not here to participate in another social network — in fact, many shun social networks altogether, so pandering to that industry with features may alienate our existing members. That’s something to keep in mind when taking criticism and suggestions into consideration. I’m starting to think getting feedback from the literary industry would be a lot more valuable on the whole.

As an aside, while most of the comments on Mr. Brogan’s article aren’t really relevant to Protagonize (most are related to marketing, advertising, monetizing niche networks, or simply people pushing their own sites and products), one of the comments was interesting: real names. Is anonymity bad? While developing Protagonize, I worked under the impression that most authors would want to remain anonymous. I think now that I’ll open things up and let our members include their real names if they want. There’s no harm in it, as long as it’s not required.

Thoughts? I’d love to hear what our authors have to say about of all of this.

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12 Responses to Damned with faint praise?

  1. Rac7hel says:

    Hmmm… I have to agree with you that this Chris guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He came here expecting to find a social network and then wrote criticisms about how it didn’t meet his expectations. He had an interesting point to make, but using Protagonize as an illustration of that point doesn’t really work out- since it’s clearly not just a social network. He obviously didn’t contribute to the site at all, or he would have learned that adding favorites is a different tool than adding “friends.” …and with a purpose. You add a favorite because you want to receive notifications when they write something new, so you can read it, because you like their writing. Not so that you can view each other’s email address or extended profile or anything. Yeah.

    I think a box for your real name would be nice. It certainly shouldn’t be mandatory but I think it’s good to encourage people to identify themselves. I agree with the girl who made that comment, at least in a long-term sense. Eventually the internet should lose its anonymity and we should all be upfront and honest about ourselves, and I think that social networking sites are doing a fine job at getting people over that initial fear of exposing themselves online. Still, the lack of a real name requirement would not turn me away from any site, especially if the site has a purpose other than getting to know people and chatting with them.

  2. Paul Dettman says:

    I don’t speak for Chris B, but let me tell you what happened to me. I hadn’t heard of you guys, but I am thinking of joining up and I recommended a friend on the strength of his article. My interpretation of what he said was: ‘gee, there’s this really neat site which you need to check out, and it got me thinking…’

    His article was totally not about your site, it just happened that he had some ideas that he wanted to share while he happened to be here. That’s not faint praise, it’s just coincidence. And now you have two new users! If everyone who viewed his post does that, you may get 100 new users today for nothing :)

  3. Paul had it right. I didn’t write about your site. I wrote about what your side got me thinking about.

    Your site is the way you designed it to be. Enjoy it. : )

  4. nick says:

    Chris, thanks for stopping by. I probably would have interpreted your post that way too, but I think it was this specific comment you made that made me assume you were just lumping Protagonize in with the rest:

    “I want more. I want lots more. No, don’t come comment on my post and tell me that it’s coming. It’s not your fault, but here’s the thing.”

    I’m not sure how you wouldn’t expect me (or anyone) to respond to something like that. But I definitely felt like I had to respond. :)

    Even if the piece wasn’t intended to come across harshly, I think it did. And many of the suggestions you make, such as:

    – “For a site about stories and writing, I want MUCH more specialized tools”

    – “I want mark-ups and overlay editing features so that others can come in and give you edits and annotation to your stories.”

    – “Don’t stop at the basics. Don’t just give me another place to make a profile and add friends. It has to give me much more than that before I care. And I think I’m speaking for the user base in general at this point.”

    I think my remarks were justified and your post merited a response — it’s fine to want more features, but you have to look at that in the greater context.

    I’m just trying to prevent people from drawing invalid comparisons, more than anything.

  5. Ross says:

    There are now thousands of social networks that cater to a whole variety of subjects. These smaller, focused sites allow users to connect with like-minded people and give advertisers targeted demographics. Niche social networks are also good for marketers who have a product or service they want to promote that relates to a particular interest. A good place to find such sites is a search engine that caters specifically to social networks such as http://findasocialnetwork.com

  6. I don’t think your remarks are bad. By all means, it’s about conversation. I’m grateful to have your thoughts and opinions, especially about the larger space.

    Keep on doing what you’re doing, Nick. You’ve got a plan. Work the plan, and make it work.

    Guy Kawasaki loves to talk about how even VCs can be bozos. So can social media dudes who look over your site, but aren’t a deep part of your community. Definitely another way to see it all.

  7. nick says:

    Hey Chris,

    I agree that conversation is inherently a good thing and debate tends to generate some excellent ideas. Some of the suggestions you had for the site were things I hadn’t thought of and that I’ll be adding to my roadmap.

    You’re a classy guy and I appreciate you taking the time to come here and discuss the issue. You could have easily just brushed my comments off, so thank you.

  8. Never. That’s not how we roll, Nick. (I never really say that). Let me tell you a bit more about me:

    I wrote fiction exclusively from somewhere after six years old (early works were a little lightweight), until September 11th, 2001. Thereafter, I lost fiction and went into nonfiction. I’ve become much more of a writer since that event than before, when I used to write stuff in the vein of A.M. Holmes, Victor D. LaValle, and stuff not unlike the McSweeney’s guys (only not as good).

    I just didn’t want you to think my ideas come from nowhere about what I’d want from a social network on writing, but at the same time ,I wanted you to realize that I was taking on “social network for _____” sites of all flavors, not really you.

    Much love.

  9. nick says:

    Cool, that makes things clearer. I didn’t realize you were an author outside of blogging and social media, so that gives me a better read on your feedback.

    The overlay/markup idea was interesting; I’m definitely looking for that kind of original author interaction, letting them guide the story through annotation separate from comments, but I’ve got a bit of a different take on it that may not go the overlay route. And having some kind of embedded thesaurus lookup would be great provided I can find a decent 3rd party API to use…

    I think the main point I was making in my original response was how we go about defining social networks. We can arbitrarily say that anything with community-oriented features is a social network, though I’m not sure that’s accurate. And I’m sure that’s not what you were implying, but I do think a lot of people (especially those who are trying to ride the hype, like VCs and marketing types) are lumping all sorts of things together these days, and they need to understand the notion a little better before jumping in with both feet.

    The distinction I’m trying to make here is that Protagonize is a collaborative writing site with some social features, and not a social network for writing. It may sound like just semantics, but it goes to the core of the site’s functionality and purpose, so I think it does need to be differentiated.

    Anyhow, I don’t want to sound like I’m splitting hairs, so I’ll leave it at that. :)

  10. randulo says:

    on the other hand, because I read Chis with interest, I always explore sites he mentions and make my own determinations. I think Protagonize is a very interesting site and I believe it has most of what it needs. Not being a fiction author myself, I’m not sure what else it needs though :)

  11. Ahhhhhhh…. I get it. I’m calling this a car when you’re saying it’s a coffee shop. (Not really the analogy, but the point is apples and dogs).

    I’m a doofus. : )

  12. nick says:

    Apples and dogs, oranges and cats, chickens and bananas. That’s the spirit. :p

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