Pinboard Blog

The Fans Are All Right

I've had a couple of emails and tweets asking somewhat cautiously why the popular page has filled with slash fiction. That's because the fans are coming!

I learned a lot about fandom couple of years ago in conversations with my friend Britta, who was working at the time as community manager for Delicious. She taught me that fans were among the heaviest users of the bookmarking site, and had constructed an edifice of incredibly elaborate tagging conventions, plugins, and scripts to organize their output along a bewildering number of dimensions. If you wanted to read a 3000 word fic where Picard forces Gandalf into sexual bondage, and it seems unconsensual but secretly both want it, and it's R-explicit but not NC-17 explicit, all you had to do was search along the appropriate combination of tags (and if you couldn't find it, someone would probably write it for you). By 2008 a whole suite of theoretical ideas about folksonomy, crowdsourcing, faceted infomation retrieval, collaborative editing and emergent ontology had been implemented by a bunch of friendly people so that they could read about Kirk drilling Spock.

Fan culture is extremely collaborative, and its participants had rapidly taught one another how best to combine LiveJournal, Delicious and other sites into an network for sharing and discovery that, due to the social stigma of the hobby, remained under the radar even though it would have meant instant success for any entrepreneur sincerely willing to work with them. Fans shared their setups and workflows with each other in much the way that startup subculture obsesses over tool chains and "stacks". The whole thing reminds me a lot of what HyperCard was like in the nineties, right before its demise, when a large number of otherwise non-technical users had basically taught themselves to do elaborate programming with the tool, and were doing amazing things with it. Until, of course, Apple pulled the plug.

Avos did a similar thing last week when they relaunched Delicious while breaking every feature that made their core users so devoted to the site (networks, bundles, subscriptions and feeds). They seemed to have no idea who their most active users were, or how strongly those users cared about the product. In my mind this reinforced the idea that they had bought Delicious simply as a convenient installed base of 'like' buttons scattered across the internet, with the intent of building a completely new social site unrelated to saving links.

For any bookmarking site, the fan subculture is valuable because it makes such heavy and creative use of tagging, and because they are great collaborators. I can't think of a better way to stress-test a site then to get people filling it with Inception fanfic. You will get thoughtful, carefully-formatted bug reports; and if you actually fix something someone might knit you a sweater. And please witness the 50 page spec, complete with code samples, table of contents, summary, tutorial, and flawless formatting, the community produced in about two days after I asked them in a single tweet what features they would want to see in Pinboard*. These people do not waste time.

They're also smart enough to realize that in the long run, they need to take control of their own bookmarking in order to avoid these kinds of surprises. One way they've done this is through what Britta calls the "friendliest goddamn open source project ever", an Archive of our Own. But this project is not quite ready to carry the full burden of everyone's bookmarks.

Pinboard is not a social site, and it has always been about archiving, not sharing. I don't intend to make the same mistake Avos did and suddenly try to retool the site for a brand new group while neglecting the quiet link hoarders who form the Pinboard old guard. As a grouchy hermit, I like to think that other grouchy hermits should have a place to store stuff that will never feel like publishing or expose them to unwanted contact with other people.

At the same time, I think the fans are a very nice bunch who have been somewhat hard done by, and that their presence will be a long-term boon to the site. Like bees in a garden, the sudden arrival of a big swarm can be alarming, but all this swarm wants is a place to set up a hive and get to work. And I'll end this metaphor right now before it provokes any pollination slash.

In the long run it's healthier for the site to have a more varied user base, and this is a group of users with a terrific track record of constructive feedback on other sites (notably LiveJournal) and a committment to privacy and non-commercialism that I think a lot of our original users share.

In a word: don't be afraid. Nobody has pivoted, nothing is changing. Just be careful what you click on for a while.

I'll post in a couple of days about what I'm planning to work on this fall, including my response to that epic feature spec. In the meantime I'll be hanging around Twitter and on pinboard-dev, as ever.

* naturally, they also produced this.

—maciej on October 02, 2011

Pinboard is a bookmarking site and personal archive with an emphasis on speed over socializing.

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