Open letter to Matt & Toni: Three ways for WordPress to become more of a social network

WordPress.com is growing at fast pace. Its not quite at the Facebook, MySpace level, but at the rate it is growing, it could clearly get there. It has some of the elements of a social network, but these elements tend to be implicit rather than explicit. I think WordPress could grow even faster and replace some of what people get out of sites like Facebook if it became a little more of a social network. The question is how it could do this without changing the current character of the community too much.

Others have also noticed that wordpress has some of the attributes of a social network. Chris Messina thinks of it as a distributed social network. I am building on that theme. Like Chris, I like the openness of WordPress. It fits the nature of the web. I like the fact that its person-centric. And I have also observed that for a object-based network like SlideShare, the main place for embedding our widgets is not Facebook, or MySpace or Orkut – its WordPress. So you could say that I am selfish in my desire to see WordPress grow!

WordPress does have the basic ingredients for social network. Spaces for individuals (their blogs) within a larger social system (WordPress.com) and ways for people to connect with each other (by linking, commenting, blogrolls). What WordPress does not have is the social glue to pull the disparate community together and give it more of a community feel. Here are three ways that WordPress can get more social glue.

Wordpress icons1) Make it easy to navigate via users: Right now you can navigate from user to post to user, or from comment to user. It would be easy for WordPress to change this and make it possible to go from user to user in a much more fluid manner. A specific example: on the front page of wordpress.com, they show the user icons next to blog posts in the News Department area. The user icons should point to the About page for that user. As a rule, user icons should always point to the About page for that user.

2) Standardize the “About” page: To the best of my understanding, there is no standardized profile page on WordPress. But every social network needs a profile page which has information about the user and includes a browsable list of contacts. The About page can service this purpose – it needs to the central place for information about a user and their contacts.

3) Create a standard list of contacts: Social networks need a way for each person to have browsable list of contacts. I don’t think that WordPress needs to have a “Add as contact” button like most social networks. There are many implicit ways for people to make social connections on WordPress (blogrolls, commenting, linking). Any or all of these could form the basis of an inferred list of contacts (this idea will need to be fleshed out).

There are other things that WordPress could do to create more of a community feel. For example, create WordPress groups. People express identity and form affiliations by creating / joining groups. Groups could be based on topical interest. Location based groups also might work well – letting bloggers from a certain location easily find each other.

I think the challenge for WordPress would be to do this without losing the current feel. But with a few subtle design and technical changes, wordpress could do this … the basic ingredients for a social network are already in place. And I think Matt and Toni are upto the challenge.

32 responses to “Open letter to Matt & Toni: Three ways for WordPress to become more of a social network

  1. Hey Rashmi,
    I trust you’ve seen both LiveJournal and Vox.com? Both have had social networking features like you describe for years and have always supported open standards which also allow for decentralized social networks. The media integration features that Vox has even let you connect to your content on other social services, like Flickr or YouTube (and hopefully slideshare!); any network that starts today without being aware that people belong to lots of other networks seems short-sighted. (this is why we’ve made it so easy in Vox, TypePad, and Movable Type for authors to link to their other accounts using Microformats)

    As you said, projects like DiSo and what we’ve been building into Movable Type (like Action Streams) will really be the interesting next step for social networks. Seeing Matt and Toni invest some of their $30M in joining these efforts would be a great thing for the entire community.

    –David

  2. Definitely agree, but I’m also with David — I think that this work (perhaps obviously) is something that the distributed community of web users can take on themselves, without needing to wait for direction (necessarily) from Matt or Toni. I certainly welcome their involvement, participation and leadership, but I think we have everything we need to make progress on this through existing open source channels!

  3. @David, @chris

    You are right – LiveJournal and Vox do have a lot of the characteristics I describe. And DISO as a larger movement recognizes that there are different type of social networks and we need the ability to interact back and forth.

    WordPress has just been much more on my radar because I have been noticing how many SlideShare embeds find a home there. Also the WordPress community is passionate and keeps building new SlideShare plugins to support our embeds (4 at the last count).

    There are many object-based networks like SlideShare, and I wonder if they have a similar experience with regards to WordPress.

    Also, while I recognize the DISO (many, open social networks) argument, something will need to provide a tipping point for people to start switching from Facebook / MySpace and recognizing one of these open spaces as their social networking home. If nothing else, the growth patterns of social networks like MySpace and Facebook have shown that when a critical mass of people do something, then the rest follow.

    Question is – what is the most likely way to reach that tipping point?

    rashmi

  4. @David

    We worked with WordPress to make sure SlideShare embeds work with WordPress.com. I am happy to work with you to make sure SlideShare embeds work in all of the SixApart blogging platforms. I know they work on TypePad and MovableType, but don’t know how easy it is.

    With Vox, if you support YouTube videos, it should be fairly easy to support SlideShare embeds.

    We are creating a list of plugins for SlideShare users here: http://blog.slideshare.net/ (look on right sidebar). Look forward to adding Vox/TypePad/MovableType to the list!

    rashmi

  5. I would also be interested to point out, for clarity, the difference between WordPress and WordPress.com

    WordPress.com looks and feels like a silo. Great for building many DiSo nodes quickly if they adopt formats/protocols — but not actually part of the goal.

    WordPress is open source software to create a self-hosted node to do whatever you want. The perfect target for DiSo, since we can use arbitrary scripts/plugins to add the functionality we need.

  6. @Stephen,

    Thanks for clarifying. In my post, I am referring much more to WordPress.com than WordPress.org. The simple reason is that installing blogging software and running it on your own servers is not something most people will do.

    Even creating your own blog on something like WordPress.com / Vox.com is more than most people do right now. They want something simple and tailored like Facebook (even if its far less powerful). DISO will need to be built on top of services like this.

    A truly mass service will need to be very simple. Downloadble software does not fit that bill to begin with.

    rashmi

  7. Not sure how WP.com works with reference Author pages (I seem to rarely access any of my sites there!), but the self hosted app has something called Author pages that would do very quite nicely for your desire to have user profile pages. At that point, it just comes down to designing your theme/template with the appropriate author.php page to display a look and feel for your user/author’s info!

  8. If WordPress.com also does have the concept of Author, then its not as standardized as it should be. Partly what I am pointing out that with a little bit of standardization of the About page, and list of contacts, WordPress.com starts becoming much more of a social network.

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  11. The question that I would put up is that isn’t WordPress just beautiful because it is this simple and flexible? If things became ‘standardized’ then how would WP stand out for itself. Most bloggers that I know choose WP because they like to do what they want with their publishing platform, they don’t like to conform to rules or restrictions. People want simplicity and elegance, both of which are perfectly integrated in WordPress. I don’t think this should change.

  12. Let me add:

    1) DO, please, think beyond WordPress.com — to the many, many, many free and open installs of WordPress out there.

    2) Re #1: Isn’t this what dataportability and the global graph should be about?

    3) It would be pretty easy and very helpful to develop the WordPress user profile page to include a profile pic and more profile information, which could be incorporated into author and user lists and pages.

  13. Building on the code principles found in the WordPress Stats plugin would be an example of how the self-hosted blog could be integrated in some way with a WordPress.com social network.

  14. well if they can do it with drupal and joomla why not wordpress?

  15. Thank you for the suggestions Rashmi! I agree with a lot of your points.

  16. I do not want wordpress.com to change to be more like Facebook, et al.. that would in fact detract from it’s appeal. I do not want to have to supply more info, and feel that my info would be marketed and encroached upon as those social network sites do. Nor do I want the obligation to be networking, or be exposed to the spamming and abuse that is problematic on those sites.

    This seems to be a move intended to profit those who want to huckster wordpress.com and I say NO!

  17. These are some great ideas. Regarding the About page recommendation, I like the idea of a template for information as part of the initial install of WordPress (I have blogs with own domain), but I don’t want to be restricted to only that template of information. I love the flexibility of WP as a CMS and don’t want to give that up because of just the social possibilities.

    Thanks for giving us something to think about!

  18. Perhaps not your intent, but your post on what wordpress could do to become more of a social network site suddenly brought into focus for me exactly what it means to be a social network site. Thanks for sharing this simple and powerful conceptual framework!

  19. While I usually use WordPress to publish content (akin to a magazine), I tend to resort to more explicitly defined “social networks”, such as Gather or Facebook, to post content intended to be (more or less) debated.

    Integrating even more “social plugins” within the WordPress zeitgeist would surely add to the already rich mosaic of add-ons for this open source blogging superstar script.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this matter.

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  21. Not sure if its been mentioned but you could have a slim top bar like the blogger accounts have which include up to 3 catergory topics such as technology politics and media, and then a geographical link eg. city. You could follow the links to a list of blogs in that catergory.

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  23. Author’s pages are theme based. Some of the themes at wp.com have them. Some (actually most) do not. There actually is a plugin for the software that will do this sitewide but the licensing for it specifically excludes wp.com.

    There actually is a way to pull up a sort of profile page that would list the user’s blogs, personal tag cloud and latest posts but I can’t remember how to do it. It didn’t get mentioned that much. Let me go ask my spies over there.

    Most of what you suggest is actually done on other WordPress Multiuser sites. The ones I host have those features. It’s just that wp.com doesn’t support them. (WordPress Multiuser being the software that runs wp.com)

  24. Yesterday I closed both my Facebook and MySpace accounts. It’s kind of an experiment. I was hardly using either, and I want to see of a can actually do without them. But blog I must, so I use the WordPress app to run a blog. I had tried Radioland on Salon, then Blogger, but came across WP and feel it’s a great match for me. I’ll never dump my Flickr account though. I can see Flickr getting more social in the near future, and it might actually be a good thing for Yahoo to push right now. All they really need to do is trick out the Flickr profile page a bit.

    Anyway, with Flickr, my WP blog, email and chat, I feel covered for cyber-socializing. Being a part of too many social networks can be fatiguing. It would be nice to see WP hosted blogs get a bit more social in nature; anything to attract more readers is a plus. But the WP core mission must not be compromised.

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  26. There have been several wordpress MU sites that incorporate similar features, as dr mike pointed out in an earlier comment. There have even been a couple sets of plugins specifically made to turn a wordpress installation into more myspace like look.

    I think there are a few single instance wordpresses running with multiple authors and contributors registered, that share similar pages to the ones you described aren’t there?

    I do look forward to more unique blends of wordpress to shine across the internet for a while to come, it is constantly improving and there are many people using it in many different ways. I can’t wait to see what the community creates over the next couple of years, and I am sure you will see many more social networks using wordpress as a core. We are currently testing an MU based social network (or two ;)

    I appreciate your points and suggestions for ways to make it function more like a facebook-like social network, I believe your ideas are valid.

    The comments here have made me think what it would be like to create a custom page theme template (for the about page) that would add the author information into the top of the about page. This would be a simple easy way to get the author info shown, now to just get everyone to fill it all in.

    As open Id and data portability continue to grow as well, I hope that it becomes easier for internet authors to fill in their info quickly, accurately, and with choice of which information to propagate and share.

    Social networks and the software that runs them will continue to grow and evolve, and people like you sharing your comments about ways to improve will constantly make it better.

  27. Interesting Wiki feature for WP.To develop and promote joint blogs.

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  30. I just posted my startup’s business plan (it’s marked private) to SlideShare … odd that I just stumbled here soon after.

  31. The way Matt and his gang are preceding is no doubt commendable. Automatic certainly have some plans. Their indispensable tool for publishing blog has its own social media thru its publishers.

    But if they will implement (what you are suggesting here) then it will exactly look like stumble upon. It has its own uniqueness. It’s not necessary for all social media to look like twin brothers.

  32. David, Vox has this… so what? You have many more users on typepad and MT… why not bring the social to everybody? You are throwing away growth and traffic.