School Alumni Facebook Experiment Results

Halls Of Horror
Creative Commons License photo: DownTown Pictures

On Sunday I introduced my experiment with building a community through Facebook for a school alumni group. I’m pleased to be able to say that the Facebook application was complete yesterday and I can now discuss some of the results.

First of all, a little about the target audience. We are looking at sixth form college students in Britain (between 18-19 years old). In grand total, there are 200 students in total and that’s the total number of people we are aiming at. I would estimate that about 25% of the target audience doesn’t use the internet on a regular basis so the target figure of course is about 150.

We’ve had two attempts at creating a community around the school alumni group.

Attempt 1: Drupal

The first attempt involved using the open source Drupal CMS. The community featured forums, latest news and so on. The community was advertised primarily through real world posters and presentations. There was also a small campaign online to promote it via e-mail.

After one year, we managed about 50 registrations (33% of the target) of which about 5 are active. This means the community is actively used by about 4% of the target audience. In total, about 30 messages were received on the forums in the one year the community has been active.

I believe the main barrier to the success of this online community is the difficulty in creating an account. You need to set up yet another username, password and validate your e-mail address. That means people have to go to a lot of effort to join the community and the lack of active members in the community also limits the usefulness (more on this later).

Attempt 2: Facebook

This is the new alumni community which I launched yesterday lunchtime. The community has various features which are similar to the first attempt. The community again was promoted through real world posters and presentations, as well as online via email and messaging. This time, viral marketing also took place through various Facebook channels.

After just 24 hours, the community reached 75 users. That means we’re already half way towards the target of 150. Are people engaging with the application? We received 30 messages in just one day. According to Facebook statistics we received 1,100 page views in just the first 12 hours. For me, that’s astonishing growth – through a Facebook application we achieved the same results in under a day as it took a year to achieve on an external Drupal-based website.

From my perspective, the amount of work that it took to promote the Facebook application was much less than that of the external community.

Conclusions

Bright Atlanta
Creative Commons License photo: Nrbelex

A sceptic will point out that this is an unfair test because the two communities were obviously different in their designs and feature sets. I will say that when it came to launching the second community, I was much more experienced at creating and designing online communities so I was able to create a much more engaging community. But it is the fact that we opted for a Facebook application which allowed us to develop these engaging features. Many features have a critical mass of users below which it would not be useful.

The growth of community is proportional to its size. The constant of growth (k) depends on various factors:

  • The proportion of users who are active in the community
  • The proportion of users who engage in the community
  • The proportion of users who will let their friends know about the community
  • The conversion rate (invites to registrations)

I would say that Facebook applications have a much higher growth constant than other communities, for several reasons:

  • Easy to access; no additional URL, username, password to remember
  • There are additional communication channels through Facebook
  • It is much easier to build engaging community features through Facebook
  • Facebook has an invite system for users to share their favourite apps
  • Users already have Facebook accounts meaning the “barriers to registering” are almost zero: all they have to do is to tick a box granting an application access to their personal data.

Of course, it depends on the demographic of your userbase. This experiment was run with British teenagers, many of which have Facebook. Across other demographics, I believe implementing OpenSocial or OpenID could lead to similar benefits for online communities.

I’m very pleased with the results of this experiment and I would say it has confirmed some of the suspicions I had when I wrote my previous post. Of course, it’s something you can rip apart but I believe it’s well worth a think when you come to create your next online community!

An Experiment Building Communities in Facebook

Way to the future right now
Creative Commons License photo: ionushi

In the old days, I used to be a big fan of forums. By forums I mean the ones which are attached to a website and run on vBulletin, phpBB or something. They were great places to meet people and to keep in touch with your friends. Forums, for me, served two purposes: the social aspect and the information aspect – gossip and opinions.

Almost every webmaster in the world wanted a forum on their website and I remember all kinds of free BBS hosting websites around such as MyIkonBoard, ProBoards. Of course, those same webmasters would then create about 20 or 30 forums and never receive a single post.

A couple of years ago, blogs took off on the internet. For me, blogs replaced forums as a source of information. I used to subscribe to over 100 RSS feeds on a whole range of topics which supplanted forums as the primary source of gossip. I find blogs tend to be better researched and better sources of information.

One downside of blogs was that they never had the communities which would build up around forums (there are exceptions; sites such as Digg and Slashdot seem to have pretty active communities). So whilst blogs supplanted the whole “information gathering” aspect of forums, they never replaced the community aspect.

A previous experiment of mine was Geneone, a PHP “community management system” which tried to blend blogs, forums and webpages into one community. The reason why I built it was because at the time, the major blog, forum and content management systems wouldn’t work together. For me, integration shouldn’t be an afterthought: it should be built into the very pillars of the software.

| apple-command |
Creative Commons License photo: arquera

We released several betas of Geneone and ran the software at neonDragon.net for quite a while (and it’s still used on some parts of the site). Unfortunately, time constraints prevented me from ever producing a release-ready version of the software and anyways, Drupal did a fairly good job.

In the mean time, over the last few years social networking websites have really taken off. I’m a huge fan of Facebook. I’ve worked with the Facebook Platform a little over the past few months and I still think it’s a vast goldmine of untapped opportunity. Recently open sourced, I believe the Facebook Platform is going to be the catalyst and the glue between “social web” or “Web 2.0” applications. There is so much potential in the social web which we haven’t seen. The 90s belonged to Microsoft, the 00s (naughties?) belonged to Google. I believe the next decade will belong to Facebook.

The infrastructure which would allow anybody to integrate Facebook into their web applications today already exists and I guess I’m kind of surprised that nobody has done it yet.

I’ve recently begun an experiment to build a “mini social network” inside of Facebook. Essentially, we want to build a social network around our school alumni to share messages and photos. In the old days, we would have used a message forum to do this. What I’m trying to do is to replace the humble message forum with a Facebook Application.

The advantages of this are numerous:

  • Almost every young person in Britain already has a Facebook account so there are no worries about getting people to sign up. As soon as somebody adds your application on Facebook, you have access to their (real) name, photo and various other personal information from their profile.
  • Young people regularly use Facebook. This makes Facebook a “passive” communication tool rather than an “active” one. With standalone websites and forum sites, people have to make a proactive effort to regularly check them. A more extreme example would be the telephone: you must make a phone call to hear the latest gossip. With Facebook, it’s delivered to you and it requires no effort on your own part – this makes it “passive”.
  • The Facebook Platform saves a lot of time. In the course of developing a standard PHP application, you must write routines to manage accounts, login states, PM systems, templating, email validation and more. Facebook does pretty much all of that for you.
  • The application can integrate with various channels which promote it virally. For example, when a user adds your application, friends may find out about it on their news feeds.

Look Up
Creative Commons License photo: mrhayata

Facebook already provides a “Groups” feature which could serve as a very simple social network. But to be frank, the Groups feature sucks. It’s “active” because you need to make a proactive effort to check the group regularly; there is no way to organise photos; the message board lacks in functionality and there is no way to have any privacy.

Anyway, that’s what I’m experimenting with at the moment. It remains to see how successful it’ll be.

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think it’ll be long until somebody manages to get phpBB working inside of Facebook. It shouldn’t take more than a little code to integrate with Facebook’s user system. And I think we’ll be seeing use of the Facebook Platform within the next generation of social web applications and websites.

Watch this space!

Graphical Sparkline Microsummaries

A while ago, I wrote about Sparklines and how I implemented some sparklines into Geneone.

To recap, this is how Wikipedia describes Sparklines:

Sparklines are a format developed by Edward Tufte for small graphic charts which can be inserted within text on a page.

Tufte describes sparklines as "data-intense, design-simple, word-sized graphics". Whereas the typical chart is designed to show as much data as possible, and is set off from the flow of text, sparklines are intended to be succinct, memorable, and located precisely where appropriate.

Theres an interesting proposal at the Mozilla Wiki which will combine sparklines with microsummaries. Microsummaries or "Live Titles" allow you to show a succint "summary" of the bookmarked page in your bookmarks menu and toolbar.

Together, the two go really well. This is what graphical microsummaries could look like: 

Sparkline Summaries

Although it’s just a mockup, the screenshot looks absolutely beautiful and graphical microsummaries really could be a lot more useful than text-based ones.

The wiki page goes through some of the background to the idea and has some images of sparklines which give an indication of what graphic formats designers may choose to use. 

This feature gets a +1 from me.

Addendum: Unicode already has special "block characters". 

e.g. ▀▁▂▃▄▅▆▇█▉▊▋▌▍▎▏▐ ░ ▒ ▓ ▔▕▖▗▘▙ ▚ ▛ ▜▝ ▞ ▟

Sometimes people use these characters on Digg like ▀█▀ █▬█ █ ▄█▀ or MSN Messenger for special effect. Can we emulate graphical microsummaries using unicode and text?

User Profile Pages

I’m currently rewriting the user profiles feature of Geneone, my community management system.

To date, the profile pages have been very basic and have been modelled off the profile pages found on forums. Forum profile pages generally just list some interests, show your signature, avatar and contact details.

In contrast, MySpace almost gives you total free realm over your page. You can customize the whole look of the page, add photos, quizzes, videos, music, comments and all kinda random stuff. Myspace is built on it’s user profiles.

With Geneone user profile pages, I wanted to go somewhere down the middle. We don’t want totally stupid customization, crazy colours and animated GIF backgrounds like Myspace, nor do we want the boring, drab profile pages you find on forums.

Additionally, Geneone is designed very differently from most blog/forum softwares – it should be dead easy to integrate other applications. Evolution is a game which was integrated into Geneone around a year ago. It should be easy for Evolution to add game information onto the user profile pages.

Geneone is also designed to be extensible and versatile. On one installation of Geneone, you could run several blogs, a few hundred forums, a few content pages or maybe even a wiki. The profile pages should integrate information from these sources.

I’ve modularised the user profile system and added hooks for extensions and other scripts to add their own fields, customizations, etc. to the profile page. We’ll be replacing the existing Evolution profile system sometime soon with a slightly customized Geneone profile system.

To make the profile pages a bit more interesting and more personal, I’ve introduced "personal pages". With these personal pages, the user has free realm to add photos, links to their favourite websites, a list of interests or whatever their creativity permits! To edit a personal page, you get the same TinyMCE WYSIWYG interface found everywhere else on Geneone.

Example of new profile page 

Old Profile

Example of old profile page 

An example of things which could be possible with the new profile page:

  • Flickr/Delicious/Youtube-stream, etc.
  • Polls and Quizzes
  • Music
  • Buddies List
  • Comments
  • Latest Blog Entries/Personal Blog integration
  • Forum, blog stats

Blogs Replacing Forums?

One thing I’ve kinda noticed over the last few years is how I’ve begun to use forums less every day and blogs more every day. There was a time where I’d be an active member of about 10 forums and I’d spend over an hour every day reading posts and adding my thoughts. Today, I probably spend under 10 minutes a day reading forums and over an hour reading blogs through my feeds and updating my blogs.

In some ways, blogs and feeds have replaced forums for me. Instead of reading forums where I can find out what random people think about random things to do with technology, I choose a few blogs about focused subjects I enjoy reading about – PHP, Linux, Windows, etc. And instead of posting my thoughts or complaints on forums, I now tend to post my thoughts on my blog.

With blogs and RSS feeds to easily consume a lot of blogs, blogs turn the web into one big discussion forum. 

So are blogs really democratizing the web and broadening our horizons? I think not.

  • I tend to read blogs only about PHP so I haven’t a clue what is happening in the ASP or JSP communities. On forums I used to visit, I might have occasionally glanced threads and discussions about ASP and JSP.
  • Blogs are generally focused on the opinions of one person whilst forums are that of the community. With forums, we learn the opinions of the whole community rather than just one person with blogs. It’s possible that we can subscribe to multiple blogs and therefore read multiple opinions but people tend to only read blogs of those people they strongly agree with. Thus, blogs could actually turn a moderate into an extreme fanboy.
  • With blogs, it’s a ton harder to get an audience. You can sign up for a Blogger account and write down your thoughts but no one will be reading it. On a forum, you’ll immediately get an audience because your post and opinion is treated equally with everybody elses posts. On a forum, it doesn’t really matter whether your a first day newbie or seasoned poster. If you’ve been blogging for a long time and you have an audience, your post carries a lot more weight on a blog than a forum.

It’s been said many times that blogs are making it a lot easier for people to share their thoughts giving everybody a level playing field. I wonder whether by replacing forums blogs could also be doing the reverse – making it harder for people starting out to get an audience for their thoughts and easier for seasoned posters (therefore creating a hierarchy). And have blogs really allowed us to expand our horizons or are they doing the exact reverse?

Forum Sparklines

A few days ago I wrote about sparklines which are an interesting way of adding non-intrusive visual information through small graphs. I implemented some sparklines in the Geneone Forum mainly as an experiment but they seem to have been well-recieved (better than I expected) and I believe they are worth developing further.

The following screenshots come from the Evolution 5 Forum which has a different skin from the Geneone default so the actual look of the sparklines on a Geneone forum will be different. All the screenshots are from live data.

Forum View 

Sparkline 

A small sparkline has been added to the right of the "comment count" for each discussion. I thought this was the most logical place as the sparklines were directly related to the number of comments. The sparkline shows the number of comments made in the 7 previous days.

The sparkline has shown some interesting trends. Some discussions seem to have decreased in activity exponentially whilst others fluctuate.

No body has actually gone out of their way to complain about these mini-graphs but some people noted they are quite nice. The graphs certainly add a bit of clutter to the page but they also provide another way of visualizing data so these factors will have to be weighed up against each another.

Further work and investigation:

  • Investigate the best location and placement for the graphs.
  • Investigate the best way to format the graph (line or bar, width of bars, etc)
  • Determine how useful the information is.

Discussion Pages

Sparkline 

In the sidebar, the number of views and comments are shown along with graphs of activity over the last 14 days. These two graphs are pretty unintrusive so I don’t think anyone would have a problem with this information in the sidebar.

Vanilla Bulletin Board

Vanilla 1 is an interesting bulletin board/forum system. I really like the philosophy and the way it’s built – it’s lightweight and simple, doesn’t try to add too many features to solve every single problem out of the box and it doesn’t have all the junk you find in a normal forum system such as private messaging and "My Assistant".

I downloaded and tried it out and it’s a real breath of fresh air. The team behind Vanilla have had the guts to do something fresh and they’ve done a real good job of it. The problem with lightweight boards is you’ve got to not only spend time installing it but then more time downloading extensions and installing them (Vanilla actively encourages you to install extensions; Firefox almost discourages you).

The semi-restrictive license (GPL) and the lack of themes and useful add-ins at the moment are a bit discouraging but the final version has only been released so this is definitely one to watch.

phpBB killer? Perhaps, but not yet. 

Geneone: UI, Drafts, Templating

Over the last week or two, I’ve been working on Geneone to revamp the UI a little, switch templating systems and to implement a Drafts system.

UI Updates

As part of the effort to try to turn Geneone into a BSD-licensed software, I’ve removed all Crystal SVG images and replaced them with images from the Tango Project.

Moderate UI 

The full moderate discussion UI has icons and description of what each function does. Commands such as "Move Discussion" should really be lumped in with these options too. Looks a bit wierd with the radio button in between the description and icon but I think it makes it easier to use. I also considered using checkboxes instead of radio buttons.

Notification UI

These new message classes mean there is a more consistant look across the whole application and the messages are more visible and harder to miss than before. 

Drafts

Drafts are a real nice feature. They allow you to save a copy of your content on the server which may be half-finished. You can return to it later, either to finish it off and publish the content or you could save it as a draft again. As drafts are implemented in the actual application rather than the object code, you can save drafts for any type of content – blog entries, forum comments, pages, etc. 

Drafts

When you have some saved drafts, you’ll get an extra item on your "member bar". Click on this to access all of your drafts. From here you can continue editing them or delete them. When you select to edit them, the draft will load into the form. Options such as categories/tags will not get lost when you save it in your draft.

Templating

As previously mentioned, Geneone now uses Gene_Template which is a dead simple templating layer which uses PHP to parse your templates. I’m a big fan of the new templating system – it’s 3.7KB instead of 300KB for Smarty.

phpBB 3 User Interface Thoughts

After 4 years, the phpBB team have finally released an update to their forum software. phpBB 3 Beta 1 was released last night. There is a list of new features at area51.phpbb.com and you can download it at the bottom of the development page.

Bloat and Configuration 

The main thing I notice about phpBB 3 is that they are playing catch up to the other bulletin boards. As a result, phpBB 3 contains a ton of bloat and crap which has probably been implemented simply because other forums have it. I can’t see why anyone wants to be able to configure the minimum and maximum username/password length or why anyone would want to be able to display the fact that Google is currently crawling the forums on the "Who’s Online" list.

Features such as these make the new phpBB admin interface a lot more cluttered and it’s much harder to complete some of the basic tasks a forum admin might want to perform on his/her forum every day. Take a look at the following screenshot for sheer banality:

CAPTCHA Settings

I don’t have half a clue what these options do – there is no preview, no information on what they do and why anyone would want to configure these settings in the first place is beyond me. Administrators simply want a CAPTCHA to stop bots. They don’t want to be able to decide whether their captchas are composited, have cells or how much entropy pixel noise there is.

For me, CAPTCHAs are one of the worst "improvements" in phpBB 3. I’ve posted a couple of examples of phpBB 3 CAPTCHAs before and they are absolutely terrible.

One of the best things about phpBB 2 compared to IPB and vBulletin was that the Admin panel actually made sense and that a normal administrator could actually work their way through the admin panel and get their job done. The admin panel shouldn’t be the home to geek toys and it should not ask the user to configure things they really don’t care about.

phpBB PM 

I’m sure there are plenty of nice features in phpBB which are long awaited but I had difficulty finding them. This is my first time using phpBB 3 and it took me great difficulty to even find the Personal Messenger and then the button to send a message! (I expected there to be a send message button in the content area of the inbox). Then when I got there the crazy people at phpBB decided that there wouldn’t be a text box where I could enter the name of the recepient in. Nooo! Instead, there is a "Send to" box in the sidebar (which I wouldn’t look at unless I wanted to navigate the User CP) and there is a different text box to use depending on whether I wanted to send it to one person or multiple people. 

Conclusion

I can’t help but think all the major bulletin boards are getting it very wrong. Normal people don’t want more features, they want improved usability and simpler interfaces. Office 2007 and Firefox have shown us that. phpBB 3 makes an active effort to get in the way as much as possible and make your forum life as unpleasant as possible.

Forums

Edit Links

Can’t you just let me edit?

CAPTCHA

Yeah, this CAPTCHA had me puzzled too. Soon CAPTCHAs will be so complicated only a computer could solve them.

Reply

Four apparent different ways of replying; one of them doesn’t seem to do much but change colour.