Caught in the Current of Writer River: Building and Participating in Community-Driven Websites

A couple of years ago I went through a Digg phase. I listened to the Diggnation podcast and set my home page to the most popular posts of the day on Digg.com. Digg is a community-driven news site that allows any user to post links to interesting articles and other online content. Others can then vote on the submitted articles. Articles with the most votes appear on the front page.

Digg’s main focus is technology, and I always thought it would be cool to have a tech comm version of Digg with news more relevant to me. One weekend I sat down and created a Digg imitation using software called Pligg. Pligg was pretty much a Digg clone, so I thought it would work out perfectly. I called the site Writer River, referring to the idea of content that continuously flows down a river, all merged into one stream of information that bystanders can observe from a single view, perhaps picking out an object for a while and then sending it back on down the river.

The site was well-received, and it seemed to be taking off, gathering around 50 registered users within the first week. But if I was hoping for a Digg clone, I had a lot to achieve. For starters, whereas the typical number of votes on articles submitted to Digg was around 500+, the number of votes on Writer River was a bit depressing — 3 or 4, sometimes 9 if I voted several times.

The movement of unpublished articles to the front page (through an increasing number of votes) simply wasn’t happening. The site lacked the robust, thriving community of Digg, which made me realize a fundamental truth about Web 2.0 sites: it’s all about the community, not the technology.

I posted less frequently on Writer River and grew more frustrated with the number of spam posts appearing as pseudo articles (for example, posts on hand cream). I’d set Writer River as my home page, and one day while launching my browser I didn’t see the site but rather a message that said, “Your site was hacked by Silahsiz Kuvvetler, the Turkish Hacker.”

To be honest, it was a bit of a relief. I felt I need to regroup and come up with a better implementation of Writer River. By then Twitter was all the rage, and I’d heard good things about Prologue, a Twitter-like WordPress theme in which people could leave brief messages directly from the home page, without logging in to the admin panel. Since I was comfortable with WordPress, I sat down one Friday night and worked on version two of Writer River for about the next day.

In version two, I didn’t want voting. I’d rather just see articles float across the home page. In large communities, where perhaps 100 new articles are submitted a day, you need a voting mechanism to filter the content — but not with my community. The average submission was about two posts a day.

People were excited to see the site back, and while the sink/float voting features of the original version were gone, the second implementation proved a lot more functional. Rather than walking through several wizard-like submission screens, Writer River 2.0 included WordPress’s brand new “bookmarklet,” a script-based bookmark that you drag to your browser’s Links toolbar. When you read an article you like, you click the bookmarklet link, and a small window appears with the link of the article you’re reading. All you do is hit Publish, and it appears on Writer River. It literally takes 3 seconds.

It’s been several months since I launched Writer River 2.0, and so far it’s working well. The bookmarklet made me realize that with technology, what’s convenient gets used. Replace a posting process that takes 30 seconds with one a tenth of the time, and you suddenly find yourself posting a lot more frequently.

This is true of the phenomenon of blogging in general. Blogs make it easy to publish content; as a result, millions of people are blogging daily, publishing new content at historically unprecedented rates of about a million new posts per day.

The nearly infinite sea of information — one million new posts a day — makes sites like Writer River necessary. We need human aggregators, people like Robert Scoble, who’ll sift through hundreds of feeds each day, highlighting the most important content — but in the field of tech comm.

Other community-driven sites are taking off. The latest, Stack Overflow, combines a question-and-answer site with Digg functionality. Users submit questions, others respond with answers, and readers vote on the relevancy of the answers. When people vote positively for your answer, you accrue reputation points that appear below your name.

When hundreds of people engage in content-generation and exchange, impressive results can happen — namely, you find a lot of interesting, accurate content. Writer River doesn’t have nearly enough community to be on par with these sites, but it’s a step in the right direction.

You can visit Writer River at writerriver.com. After registering in the sidebar, add the POST IT link to your browser’s Link toolbar, navigate to an interesting article, and click your browser’s POST IT link.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, DITA, and more. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog. Email

6 thoughts on “Caught in the Current of Writer River: Building and Participating in Community-Driven Websites

  1. Pingback: My STC Intercom Article about Writer River and Community-Driven Websites | I'd Rather Be Writing - Tom Johnson

  2. Kristi

    This is timely, for me–I was wondering today, What happened with Writer River? Back when you launched and linked to a post of mine, I joined and tried to add the plugin for posting items, but I when I went to bookmark a site to Writer River, I had trouble. I’m going to try again with 2.0. Congrats on your Intercom article.

    Reply
  3. Tom

    Hi Kristi, nice to hear from you. Writer River is alive and gaining momentum. For instructions, click the How-to link. I’ve been meaning to add a short screencast. Just log in. As long as you’re logged in, when you click the bookmarklet that you drag to your toolbar, you’ll see a little posting window. If you have any suggestions for making it easier, please let me know.

    By the way, are you taking on the presidency reigns for the Suncoast chapter?

    Reply

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