When most people think of social networking, children writing pen pal letters or adults knitting and crocheting are probably two groups that don’t pop into mind. Yet these two activities are thriving, thanks to online networks where like minds can get together, share and discuss their interests.
Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.
PenPalKidsClub, or PPKC, is a new social networking site exclusively for children. The site, which has users from over 75 countries, provides a forum for kids from different cultures to meet and write to each other, pen pal-style.
The social “edutainment” site was co-founded by Shelley Aliotti so kids could have a fun time exploring other people and cultures, and come away with great tolerance and understanding. The kids’ privacy is protected — Children are represented by avatars, personal identities aren’t public, and the website filters and translates the online postcards they create.
In addition to sending and receiving postcards, the kids can play games on PPKC, which has an exclusive partnership with Encyclopedia Britannica for timely content that helps ensure children aren’t given links to external sources.
Games often involve children learning about different foods, currencies and words from other countries. Another activity involves kids finding hidden items in famous worldwide locations, and a trivia game uses a virtual game board to connect kids across the globe.
“I have always believed that if kids had the opportunity to experience one another on a ‘global playground,’ learned prejudices would be virtually non-existent,” said co-founder Aliotti.
Aliotti’s childhood pen-pal experience, with a Japanese child named Michi, inspired her write “My Pen Pal Scrapbook,” which she shared with schools and other organizations as a fun and safe way to show how children worldwide can learn and create lifelong friendships through writing to one another. The website followed and quickly gained a following.
According to Aliotti, PPKC has no outside advertisers and members, and the site’s design emphasizes safety and parental control. A “passport” for the site costs $5 a month.
Special interest social networking groups isn’t something just for kids, as a group of knitters figured out as well.
Ravelry, the name of the exclusive social network designed for knitters, has a select number of members, no check-in features, and no games. But the open design of the close-knit community allows the users to better organize their own work and share more meaningful interactions with others, making it rewarding for the members.
The practical reward is a community that helps catalog yarns and track favorite patterns. It also provides a forum for ongoing projects, as a showcase for displaying the completed crafts. The members’ passion for all things knit and crochet binds them together in a way beyond games or status updates.
Ravelry was created in 2007 by techie husband Casey Forbes and his knitting and blogging wife, Jessica, who set out to better organize the scattered community of enthusiasts.
“It got to be a stress in my life to keep up with all the stuff that was going on,” said Jessica Forbes. “I would be like, ‘I saw this awesome sweater pattern with a great modification and I can’t remember where it was’ — that kind of thing would happen all the time.”
One New Year’s Eve, the kernel of an idea transformed to a resolution, and husband Casey took on the side job of helping create the database, a project he expected to take a few weeks.
The waiting list swelled to 30,000, however, and Casey quit his day job to manage the site. The Boston couple ran through their savings, ran up their credit cards, and rolled out Ravelry t-shirts to generate operating revenue. They raised more than $70,000 from donations from the site’s fans, and began offering small ads from yarn-related businesses as ways to keep the project going while spurning acquisitions offers.
Ravelry and its 1.4 million registered users — 400,000 of them active each month — have grown into an important nexus for knitter and crocheters from all walks of life. Ravelry fans and observers say the site’s success supports the growing trend that social networks may be more appealing when they are smaller, focus on more specific issues and goals and cater to its membership.
As social networking grows increasingly dominated by Facebook, the emergence of both Ravelry and the PPKC offer an alternate path that other services can take, focusing on specific issues or communities but still creating a rich, interactive experience.