Getting Ready for “the Launch”

I’ve always been fascinated with the internet since it first emerged in the mid-90s. When I was growing up I was more into Nintendos than computers. This is something I really regret but back then the average house wasn’t into computers. I got a hold of a Toshiba Dynabook in the latter half of college mainly because my father bought one.

Programming was a realm completely out of my reach. The frameworks and tools we take for granted today were massive undertakings and costly in its time. We really don’t realize how much progress has been made in this decade.

I’ve been dabbling more and more with the internet in the past couple of years. It all started with running a blog on my own domain and tweaking templates. Naturally this leads to an interest in programming and that’s when I found rails. Ruby seemed the most “natural” of all the languages I dabbled with from html (yes, it’s a language), perl (from tweaking MovableType), PHP, python, and others. It’s just a matter of personal taste. Having said that, learning how to program is a whole different beast. It’s not like blogging where you can spew out whatever crosses your mind and turn it into something “publishable”. A program works or doesn’t and after that there’s the whole issue of getting it to work “right”.

So I’ve been learning how to program and wrapping my head around all the concepts that come with it. It’s finally come to the point that I can feel confident applying for a entry-level position (at least for rails). My goal isn’t to restart my corporate life as a junior programmer but to build a service that people can use and enjoy. Even if it never amounts to more than a hobby.

My Stealth Project

The stealth project I’ve been working on is a social network with invitation features (think of it as a cross between Facebook and evite or as an attempt at socializr). I fully realize this is probably the most saturated area on the internet with social networks cropping up everywhere and I have no grandiose illusions regarding my own service. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for years and simply need to get out of my system to prove that I can do it.

Still my idea of a social network is grounded in reality. I run a niche social group that meets every month more or less. I started it three years ago because I wanted to participate in a similar group myself but could find none. I started off by recruiting people on and off the web and in three months I was able to organize my first party. This was built on Yahoo Groups to keep in touch with members.

The first party was a mere 10 people gathering for drinks. Everyone was a bit unsure of each other (after all, we were complete strangers). I had to weed out quite a few weirdoes (one bisexual Indian engineer looking for hookups tried to crash our party). I used a couple tricks to ensure it didn’t turn out that way like requiring that participants exchange their full names and phone numbers with me before coming to to party. This is a big turnoff for trolls, party crashers, and extremely shy types. It also ensures that the party rocks when the people with enough courage do participate.

From the second party on the numbers kept growing starting with 30 people and currently I can gather at least 50-70 people on short notice if I promote it properly. Registered members (including many ghost members) is well above 1200 even though I haven’t promoted it any in the last year or so (we’ve been running for 3 years).

Thanks to the internet and the help of members I’ve been able to administer this more or less all by myself. Still, it’s a hectic mix of keeping the Yahoo Groups thriving, administering the group I maintain on a Japanese social network, and sending out evites to the English-speaking members.

The (My) Problem and Solution

After using a hodge podge of social tools to keep my group running I naturally started wanting a solution to fit my needs. One of the things I noticed with social networks is that the current relationship model of social networks simply doesn’t scale for individuals.

Almost every social network out there have more or less a binary model of social interaction. You are either a “friend” or “non-friend”. You either reveal all or nothing. Some social networks will allow you a third or fourth group such as “friend of friends” or “family” (which is a whole different category).

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this breaks down quickly with when you have a sizable number of friends. In real life people would struggle to maintain “real” friendships with 5-10 people and being acquainted on a personal level (and not work) would be a chore if you’re actively networking with 100+. There’s simply not enough time in 24 hours to maintain the relationship.

The power of social networks is to enable ordinary people to maintain personal networks that wouldn’t be possible any other way. Still, using social networks and accumulating contacts for a reasonable amount of time will lead you to “social network fatigue” from the constant socializing required, information overload from all the “diaries” and communities within the network, as well as spam or spamish solicitations.

My goal is to build a really simple social network that allows people to maintain more organic friendships in an easy and intuitive manner. I hope to tackle this by allowing the user more control over how they define relationships and also bridging the online and offline realm with an invitation feature.

Will this be a success or a major flop? Nobody knows except the odds are stacked against me. Still, at the end of the day, I’ll enjoy the experience of starting something up and taking a shot at creating a web service. If this doesn’t work out I’ll tackle the next one.

So What’s the Plan?

Right now I’ve got a demo (that’s actually live on a domain I bought) but no beta testers yet. I’m looking to add a couple essential features like personal messaging within the service, a simple blogging/diary feature, and a simple community administration feature (allowing membership moderation, etc.). The goal is to release a bare bones feature set and build it up as I get feedback.

I’ll probably announce the domain sometime later but if anyone’s interested in the private beta, I’ll be happy to email you the link (just don’t expect it to be much).

So, that’s why there’s been a lack of updates on this blog. I haven’t lost any steam. I’m just busy with other things.