By Joshua Porter
In the last several years we’ve seen the rise and fall of many
social web applications. While most of our attention gets paid to the
hugely successful ones like YouTube and Facebook, we can also learn a
lot from those that have failed. Here are some of the common pitfalls
that lead to failure when building social web applications.
1) Underestimating The Cold Start Problem
If you build and release your social web site and nobody uses it,
you have the cold start problem. This problem affects most social
sites, and directly results from designing for the network. The
effect of the network is that nodes on the network (web sites) have
attention momentum. We pay attention to certain nodes (sites)
already, and so if you’re trying to add one to the network then you
have to build your own attention momentum over time. This is not
Too often, though, this hurdle is underestimated. The first step is
to admit there’s a problem. Say “This is not working. Our early users
are not using the site how we want them to.” You would be surprised
at how often this doesn’t happen. Instead, what often happens is that
more money is pushed into features or marketing, which is precisely
the wrong move.
Strong social sites build value one user at a time. If one user finds
value, then they’re much more likely to tell others or invite their
friends. Strong sites don’t succeed by attracting “markets,”
satisfying entire groups of people with a certain feature set.
Instead, they succeed on a smaller level, really focusing on
individuals and their immediate social network. Then they can branch
outward. One strategy in particular is to design for your friends,
get the system working well for them, and then release it to a
2) Focusing On Too Many Things
I got this email in my inbox the other day from a well-meaning
entrepreneur who was building a new social web site:
“(our site) aims to combine the best elements of Digg,
Del.icio.us and StumbleUpon, as a mechanism of social discovery
and personal expression – but with the unique element of
I get so many of these it’s not funny. This is a clear case of
focusing on too many things. If you can’t describe what your site
does with a single, clear idea then you’re trying to do too much. In
addition, a comparison to other sites in this way is a bad idea,
because they’ve already beat you. They already have a strong brand
while you have a weak one.
The ease of adding social features makes overload likely. Development
frameworks make adding friends, tags, profiles, blogs, or a host of
other social features much easier than it was even a couple years
ago. This is the opposite to a barrier to entry, where the hard part
is building something at all. Instead, the ease of adding social
features is a barrier to focus. If you have every feature under the
sun you’re probably not focused as well as you could be.
So, focus on one thing that isn’t being addressed. It can’t be
something like “the unique element of real-time.” It has to be
something inherently valuable, like a common frustrating activity.
Nail that one thing to the ground, and show people how you do that
one thing better than anybody else.
Think of the most successful social sites out there. They usually
focus on a single thing. YouTube (video), Netflix (movies), eBay
(auctions), MySpace (friends), Flickr (photos), Del.icio.us
(bookmarks) and most of the social features on those sites are aimed
at making that one activity better. These are just the giants. There
are many more niches that are successfully designed that are even
more focused: for examples, threadless focuses on t-shirts, Last.fm
on music, etc…
3) Lack of Sustained Execution
What makes Google so terrifying to their competitors is that they
never stop getting better. They’re executing each and every day to
make their software the best it can be. For example, in September of
last year they did the unthinkable: they completely killed off the
interface paradigm of a solid, growing product, their Google Reader
software. But they replaced it with an even better interface that
was universally acclaimed.
It’s too easy to fall into the desktop software mindset of build,
release, and wait for the next cycle. But with social software, you
don’t have the opportunity to stop improving. Your community is
always growing and changing and so your management has to as well.
There will always be things to do, screens to improve, questions to
answer, wording to tweak, and support docs to update.
This can seem daunting, but it’s mostly about mindset. If you see it
as a sustained problem, then it will be one. If you see it as an
opportunity for continual improvement, your outlook will be more
4) Pointing the Finger When Missteps Happen
When you mess up on a social web app, as you undoubtedly will, you
have to come completely clean or your users will smell your fear and
hate you for it. Social sites are not typical software…they ebb
and flow depending on the community and how it evolves over time.
You, as the manager of a community, must act accordingly.
Consider the recent Digg dustup in which the Digg community pushed
back on the site after they tried to remove a certain DVD-cracking
code from user-submitted entries. At first, Digg tried to explain
the situation away by saying they were legally obligated to as the
result of a cease-and-desist letter. The basic message was “our hands
But then the Digg community overwhelmed the site and got the DVD
crack code up anyway. The failure of Digg management to stand up for
their users initially resulted in the user’s aggregate behavior.
Digg didn’t lose out, however, as this community passion provided an
opportunity for them to ride the wave, so to speak, reversing their
course and standing up to the cease-and-desist. Their apology letter
and reversal suggests they quickly realized that pointing the finger
wasn’t the right course. Only by accepting responsibility for their
user base could Digg keep their respect.
Here’s a template for how to say you’re sorry.