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Unravelling Ravelry: how to build an online community

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There can never have been a more appropriate name for a website. Ravelry can refer not only to the practice of knitting (of which this site must be the definitive community) but also to the astonishingly intricate structure of the site. Ravelry comprises not one but five interlinked databases, covering pretty much the entire activity of a practising knitter. It's a very impressive capture of the activity of knitting - not just buying things, which most community sites would start with, but also evaluating patterns, dreaming about projects, and even remembering which needles you own.

 

The five database tables are:

  • Knitting patterns (of course), whether in books or made up by users,
  • Projects (things that I am currently knitting or have knitted),
  • Yarns (what I am using to knit the project),
  • Wool shops (where I bought the wool), and finally
  • Needles (which needles I am using to knit the project).

Wherever appropriate, the databases are interlinked via drop-down menus, enabling the user to select a term from the index of content. Hence any pattern will typically be the basis of many projects. Any wool shop will typically sell specific varities of yarn. Here is one of the site's great strengths: with over three million users, Ravelry includes a lot of information about yarns, about books, and about wool shops - it's all identified via drop-downs. So as a user, you find a lot of useful information about the wool you have just bought, most importantly its thickness, is already held on the site. You might think that everything a knitting practitioner could want to do is encompassed in the above five databases. Ravelry would be an impressive site if it contained nothing more than this. But these five are just the start - there is a lot more to Ravelry even than that. <--break->As a registered user, you have no fewer than 13 options to choose from. These options cover the obvious user profile features (things I have bought, things I have posted) with truly remarkable capturing of the knitter's activity. Ravelry user options Now, I am no knitter. I have darned socks and the occasional elbow on my sleeve, but darning appears to be one of the few activities with wool that have not yet been covered by this site.

 

How do I know about all the options? Because they were explained to me by an enthusiastic site user (and frequent knitter). Now, most community sites are quite blatantly geared towards getting the users to buy. Ravelry, as a free site, has taken the trouble to capture users' needs and interests even when they are not specifically directed towards buying anything. For example, most knitters have a small (or large) collection of wool waiting to be knitted. Ravelry acknowledges that fact of a knitter's existence, and allows the user to catalogue their collection of wool in the appropriately named "stash". Similarly, any self-respecting knitter has a list of patterns they want one day to knit - that is the "queue". The site has even captured the simple problem that no knitter can remember what needles they already have. So Ravelry allows you to create a simple database of your own needles, which you can then output as a clever little table. You need never duplicate needles you already have. All this is quite separate to the many hundreds of forums, groups, and messages - the usual community stuff. Except that in this case, it works; every corner of the site appears to be active and well-used. Rarely has any community site demonstrated so clearly and so accurately the user journey - even if that journey, as here, often goes nowhere. It doesn't matter that the piles of wool I have may never be knitted. As a user, I have a plan for that wool, and Ravelry enables me to log that plan.