Monday, October 20, 2008

No Zombie Vampire Superpokes Please, We're Scientists

The last couple of weeks have been pretty hectic, with lots of face time on both our undergraduate PLE module (going very well thank you, very impressed with some of the skills students are showing and there are interesting signs of online communities developing). Our postgraduate Small Worlds project is also progressing. We ran two non-virtual training sessions (thanks to those who helped out) which 27 people attended, and the Small Worlds site now has nearly 70 members. Several members are Twittering away, we have further events planned over the next few weeks, and Google Analytics shows that there is steady traffic on the site.

Small Worlds Tag Cloud

So I should be pretty happy, but I having a nagging sense that something isn't quite right. Over the past couple of weeks (since I wrote this), I've been falling out of love with WetPaint, which we chose as the repository or hub to base Small Worlds around. When writing pages for training sessions, I'm starting to find the (understandable) restrictions on content embedding more restrictive and annoying, but the worst problem is the inability to easily extract or get at data regarding the members. Because WetPaint splits off the members profile pages and treats them separately to wiki pages, I can't find out who has listed certain interests, etc, without going through all the members one at a time. Now privacy is good and I can understand why WetPaint works this way, but this is hindering the intentions of the Small Worlds project.

Something that concerns me even more is the way members are, again understandably, using the social features provided by Wetpaint. There are a lot of Friend requests and private messages flying around. The Small Worlds site was never intended to be a destination, only a data collection tool and a jumping off point for other networks with better functionality. That was the reason we didn't base Small Worlds on Ning, because we didn't want it to be a ghetto. But now there's fairly stong evidence that some users are signing up to Small Worlds, but not moving on to the other destinations we intended them to find. With the Small Worlds project, we didn't set out to build a social network for scientists. The last thing anyone needs right now is another social network. We intended to facilitate uptake of more suitable tools for scientists than Facebook, and to foster networks on sites with the best affordances (e.g. Twitter for communication, social bookmarking, etc).

So I'm facing a tough choice. Having got this far, do I leave Small Worlds where it is on WetPaint, or bite the bullet and move to a better architecture (and if so, what?). My gut feeling is that however painful, a move might be the right decision. I've been in this position before. Both of my blogs have been repurposed, rebadged and moved, all of which were painful at the time but which turned out to be the right long term decisions. And Small Worlds is nothing if not a long term project.

So if we were to move, where should we go? There's plenty of advice around about building a social network, but not much about how to prevent a site becoming too social. It took me a long time to grok Friendfeed, but I finally feel like I'm getting there, and I'm pondering whether a Friendfeed room might be a better home for Small Worlds. On the other hand, I've still got lingering doubts about whether WordPress might be a solution.

So I really need your input. Should I stay or should I go? And how do you build an antisocial network?