Friday, July 25, 2008

Why we love Ravelry

Since April of 2007, there's been a Web site in beta-testing mode:

Jess is a knitter. Her husband, Casey, is a computer programmer. Jess used to bemoan the difficulties of organizing her knitting projects--keeping track of patterns and pattern changes, what yarn she bought (and how much and from where), what needles she owned (and which projects they were in), where she saw what scrumptious design, what changes she'd made to a pattern the last time she knitted it, and trying to find something to do with x yards of leftover sock yarn (when there wasn't enough for another pair). Jess and Casey--and some knitting friends--brainstormed and discussed what they'd like to see in a knitting (and crocheting) database/data management site. And Jess and Casey built it.

They quit their full-time jobs. They opened the gates to knitters and crocheters who learned about the site by word of mouth or by posts in knitters' blogs. They issued "invitations" and created a waiting list when it became obvious that an overwhelming number of people were going to be banging on their doors. (Right now, the waiting period is a couple of days. Last year, I waited more than six weeks to get my invitation.)

They opened the site to advertising--and their users loved it! Ads are personally approved by Jess: knitting, crocheting, or fiber related, no flashing ads, must be pretty pictures...and the ads link to the advertiser's site, where discounts for Ravelers often are available. Ad prices are reasonable enough for small "yarnies" (folks who spin or dye their own yarn) to buy ads; and there's a limit on how many ads will run on the site and how many a company may buy, so that big companies don't squeeze out the small advertisers.

In about 15 months, the site has acquired more than 156,000 users. Users have compiled a database of nearly 70,000 patterns (info about the patterns--needles/hooks and yarn needed, sizes available, etc., but not the copyrighted pattern instructions themselves) and nearly 26,000 yarns. And that doesn't include people's own made-up patterns or their homespun fibers. Designers can post PDFs of their patterns on Ravelry; a Raveler can buy the pattern (via Paypal) and download the PDF from the Ravelry site. And there are lots of free patterns to download. A user's projects page has links to her (or his--lots of guys on Ravelry) photos on Flickr and blog posts. And the most amazing thing is how the site has grown and changed as Casey gleefully revamps--or redesigns--whole sections of the site. You can click on a pattern and see all the ways other Ravelers have made it--what changes they made, what yarns they used, and how the item looks on real people (rather than models). You can click on a yarn that you've bought, and see the projects that other Ravelers have made with that yarn. You can search the database for a pattern that uses just the yardage you have on hand. You can search for free patterns, on-line patterns, crochet patterns, baby patterns, doilies, shawls, socks...the combinations are endless.

In the beginning, there were no forums. Now there are--and sometimes, the Ravelry forums have the same ups and downs and temper tantrums you see on other forums. As a rule, though, there are so many groups (more than 6000 of them) that cater to special interests that Ravelers can go find a like-minded group to chat with and avoid the mayhem.

So...the 2008 Beijing Olympics is coming up, and a couple of Ravelers had the idea of coordinating a Ravelry event with the Olympics--with projects to be started during the Olympic opening ceremony and completed by the end of the closing ceremony, the goal being not individual champions and winners, but seeing how many projects on the site could cross the "finish line" in that 17-day period. The idea caught on. Nearly 400 Ravelers have officially signed up--so far. Nearly 1000 projects have been entered (and the entry deadline is August 8). There are 31 "events" (with names like Sock Put and Hat Dash). There are dozens of "teams" (like Team Hopelessly Overcommitted). The 2008 Ravelympic Group* has nearly 3200 members (not all have committed to an event). There's one thread on that forum with more than 3000 posts on it (the first post went up on June 28). During the Olympics, Ravelers will work on their projects, watch the Olympics, and forum-post to their fellow "competitors" or "teammates" with encouragement, advice, cheers, and tears.

Now all this activity has to be impacting the Ravelry site. Lots of posts, lots of database hits as people queue up projects, post in the forums, search patterns, yarn, and fellow Ravelers' pages. There is lots of Olympic-related knitting art, such as logos for various teams, many using the "official" Ravelympic logo of five balls of yarn. How has Casey reacted to all this activity...all this "drag" on his beloved database?

Well, he posted this: "Wow - the Ravelympics keep getting bigger! Is there something I can do to help and make it a little easier for people to track what is going on and all that?" You gotta love a Code Monkey who's a glutton for punishment.

He's created a tracking system using tags. Competitors tag their projects with an event name and a team name. He's created display boards showing what the teams are, how many members (and who they are), what projects are entered in which events. There's a system for adding tags to projects that circumvents a user's inability to type accurately (click an icon, then click the tags you need from a list; once you tag an item, it shows on the display board).

Casey clearly is having a field day (pun intended) with all the extra programming. He's working on ways to track which projects are nearing the finish line, to tally all the info. When someone bemoaned the extra work this had to be causing Casey, he answered: "One thing that we try to remember over here - the work will never be done, so we have to make time for fun :) Okay, so we don’t say that exact goofy rhyme, but something like that."

And that's why so many of us love Ravelry. It's not just a knitting/crocheting database. It's a fun knitting/crocheting database, run by a couple of folks who truly enjoy what they're doing.

*One fun occupation on Ravelry is coming up with Rav-related names; for instance, users on Ravelry have a "Ravatar." *grin*

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