Common Pitfalls of Building Social Web Applications and How to Avoid Them, Part II

by Joshua Porter

Originally published on Josh's blog Bokardo on June 20, 2007. This is the second of a two-part article. The first part is, Common Pitfalls of Building Social Web Applications and How to Avoid Them, Part I

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 more of the common pitfalls that lead to failure when building social web applications.

5) Not Appointing a Full-time Community Manager

No matter how prescient your designers and how well thought out your design strategy, there is no way to design a perfect social web site that doesn’t need ongoing management. Yet, some social start-ups fail to recognize this and launch their app without a designated caretaker. The result is a slow failure… the worst kind of failure because it’s not immediately apparent that it’s happening.

In any decent social app, use and users are always changing, always adapting and pushing the limits of your software. So as Matt Haughey, founder of Metafilter, says in his excellent Community Tips for 2007, “Moderation is a full-time job.”

The success of many social start-ups proves this to be true. Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield, when asked about making online communities work, admitted there is no silver bullet, but added:

“A lot of our success came from George (Oates), the lead designer, and Caterina (Fake). Both of them spent a lot of time in the early days greeting individual users as they came in, encouraging them and leaving comments on their photos. There was a lot of dialogue between the people who were developing Flickr and their users to get feedback on how they wanted Flickr to develop. That interaction made the initial community very strong and then that seed was there for new people who joined to make the community experience strong for them too.”

Stewart’s description is exactly how George described it to me when I met her at SXSW. She could not over-emphasize the value of her and Caterina spending so much time with users… 24 hours a day greeting them, showing them how to use Flickr, and generally saying “Hi.” It was clear to her that a huge part of the early success of Flickr resulted from that personal attention, that personal connection that someone on the other end cares about what’s going on. A full-time community manager is crucial to providing this level of attention.

6) Not Building Archived Knowledge

When your social app begins to grow and you start to attract more and more new people to the fold, you begin to see trends in their initial confrontation with the software. The same issues crop up repeatedly. People have the same problems over and over again and the community manager spends more and more time answering the same questions.

For example, uploading that first batch of photos might be intimidating for those folks who have never done it before. Let’s imagine they all run into the same problem: how do you get photos out of iPhoto and into your Flickr account? There are certain steps to do this, but it is not entirely clear, especially if you’ve never had to export pictures out of iPhoto before.

It’s the community manager’s role to help people at this stage. They’ll chat and email with the person to help them along. But their role should also include figuring out when archiving common problems will make a big difference to a large group of users. If the process of exporting from iPhoto is archived at a URL, then the community manager only has to point people to the brand new “exporting from iPhoto” page instead of explaining it over and over again.

One strategy to avoid repeating the same things over and over again is to use these interactions to feed a FAQ or a user’s guide. Whenever you start to see trends in help, add it to your FAQ and add a section to the user’s guide. This will allow the community manager to focus on the latest, more unique problems without having to rehash older issues again and again.

This seems pretty obvious now that we’ve talked about a general case. But it’s not so obvious when you’re in the heat of battle and these issues are cropping up unstructured for the first time. The secret is to observe patterns in the questions people ask but also in the underlying cause of the questions while leaving enough design time dedicated to creating a healthy set of resources that can serve future users.

7) An Over-Focus on Social Value

This may sound counter-intuitive, but it is possible to focus too much on social value when creating social web applications. Why is that? Well, because much of the motivation within social sites is actually rooted in personal value, or answering the question: “what’s in it for me?” I’ve dubbed this the “ Lesson” because it was who gained so much attention for the social value of tagging but it was really the personal value of saving bookmarks that drove the site.

At the beginning, when you’re building the service, is not the time to focus on social value. There is no social value because there is no user base. So adding tags in the hopes that people will discover new things is probably premature at this stage, for example. Instead, focus on how a single person can use your service even if others don’t share or tag anything.

Think about YouTube, a killer social app. Even at the very beginning YouTube was providing personal value: hosting your videos for free. If they had been charging for this feature, no social design in the world could have caused the growth that free video hosting did. So while YouTube excels at getting viral growth out of the sharing of videos, they’re providing a valuable, personal service at the same time.

It should also be noted that altruistic people, or people who do things for the good of the group regardless of personal benefit, are incredibly rare. They’re so rare, in fact, that they make a very poor population to design for. There just aren’t enough of them to make up a significant population in any area. Even Wikipedians, who have been called altruistic at times, are mostly driven by reputation—the reputation they gain from their peers and other Wikipedians.

8) Not Enabling Recommendations

Thoughtful recommendations are the best possible way to increase your user base. It is word-of-mouth in action. When someone takes time out of their day to say something really nice about your service, making an honest-to-goodness recommendation, you will definitely see positive results. The question is, are you making it easy for your users to recommend you?

In our world lots of people make recommendations, but many of them are paid to do so or are looking after their own interests. Take, for example, the Publisher’s book descriptions on These are always super-positive… they explain why the book is so great and why you should buy it. They would never contain anything negative, never contain anything that might potentially hurt the sales of the book.

And, as a result, the book description tells us exactly what we would expect from a publisher. To Amazon’s credit, they have over time given individual reviews and ratings more prominence on the product page, signaling that that content is more valuable to users. And of course it should be… those people aren’t biased in the way the publishing house is.

Many sites add incentives for recommendations so that people give them more freely. Netflix, for example, allows you to give “free movies” to friends while you tell them about the service. This is a good approach. Netflix does not reward you for this… the act of giving is all that you get. If Netflix did give you a free movie that would introduce too much bias… and while more people might make recommendations it would quickly turn into a case similar to the publishers—as people would realize that there is something in it for the recommender.

9) Failing to Set a Good Example

People tend to imitate the behavior around them. It’s how we learn. We don’t just gravitate to a new place and automatically know how to behave there. We watch others and do what they do.

A solid strategy, and one that is often overlooked in social sites, is to set a good example of what a member of that community does. Specifically, to have a member of the project team illustrate what good behavior is. Do they send helpful messages to others? Probably. Do they post friendly comments? Yes. Are they happy to be here? Yes. So good examples start with the caretakers of the site… what they do will be mimicked by the initial set of users.

10) Failure to See the Larger War

One of the few metrics that matters for social apps is how many people are using it. But no matter how fast you can grow, this doesn’t happen at once. It’s actually a series of battles over time, crucial moments that you overcome that generate the next level of attention for the application.

Many social sites fail to see the larger war of which they are a part. Instead, they focus on one or two explosive moments, like being Techcrunched, that will make or break the service. But the truth is that getting Techcrunched is just super-fast attention… the people coming from Techcrunch are not motivated people who have incentives to use your service in the way that those driven by word-of-mouth will be.

Techcrunch is not word-of-mouth. Getting Techcrunched or Slashdotted or getting Dugg… is like being involved in a drive-by shooting. I’ve also heard it described as getting seagulled… they swoop in for the attack and are gone in a second. At Bokardo this has happened several times, and each time I get less and less value from the attention. The people who come are not my main audience, although a small number of them might start reading regularly. The event surely isn’t like a great recommendation by a peer or reviewer, which is what social design is all about.

So the larger war is a long-term focus on providing value not the to TechCrunch crowd, but to a much more specific population that really cares about what you’re doing. This population doesn’t do drive bys… their attention is much more valuable than that.

11) No Business Plan other than to Grow

The success of MySpace and Facebook has really caused an over-focus on growing a huge user base to eventually sell or show advertising to. Percentage-wise, the number of social apps that reach this size is relatively tiny… these sites are extreme outliers but are super well-known because they get all the press. We all have to admit, the success of 23-year-old Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook is a great story.

All too often, however, social sites have no other strategy than to follow in the footsteps of these Black Swans, to grow and grow and grow over a year or two and then to figure out how to make money at that point. But the hard part isn’t figuring out how to monetize a site with millions of users. The hard part is surviving long enough to grow that big.

The first problem, put brilliantly by Josh Kopelman, is to get users to pay a penny. He calls this The Penny Gap, which happens when the multitude of competing services are free and the biggest challenge becomes getting users to pay even a penny for what you have. He says:

“The truth is, scaling from $5 to $50 million is not the toughest part of a new venture—it’s getting your users to pay you anything at all. The biggest gap in any venture is that between a service that is free and one that costs a penny.”

While it is possible to make money on a huge user population by advertising or selling out to a Google or Yahoo, it’s an incredible risk that only a few people will successfully navigate a year. Wouldn’t it be better if your users were paying you all along? Offer them tiered services, with a free plan that provides the basic valuable service and premium plans that provide something more.

About the Author

Joshua Porter is the brains behind the popular design blog,, and wrote the book Designing for the Social Web. Having worked as a Research Consultant at User Interface Engineering for five years, he started Bokardo Design in 2007, where he focuses exclusively on social web applications. His expertise on designing social experiences is sought by companies around the world.

Strategic Approaches to UX Research

Intensive June 3-7, 2024 • Strategic UX Research is changing organizations. Get ready to change yours.

In five 90-minute sessions, explore how to connect your organization’s long-term direction and strategy directly to your customers’ and users’ deepest needs. Join us starting on June 3 and start leading your organization through this powerful, game-changing transformation.

Dive Into Our UX Research Intensive