April 10, 2007

Nature Network -- a work in progress

I guess it's a month or so ago that the fine folks at Nature started up their brand new science social networking site Nature Networks. The about page is very informative, and I'll excerpt here:

Connecting scientists at a global and local level.

Nature Network is the online meeting place for you and fellow scientists to gather, talk and find out about the latest scientific news and events. Science is an international endeavor and deserves a global stage for discussion. Scientists can also benefit from interactions at the local level. That's why you'll see an increasing number of local city hubs on Nature Network, starting with Boston and London.

And a list of their functionality:
Nature Network is completely free. Here's what you can do on it:

  • Create your own personal profile page and describe yourself and your research.
  • Set up a group for your lab, department or institution. Or you can form a topic-based group, such as an RNAi, climate change, or nanotechnology group.
  • Join and have discussions with group members.
  • Build your own online network of likeminded people.
  • and give us your take on what's going on in your field or in the broader world of science; post comments on other people's blogs.
  • On the city pages, search and browse our comprehensive listing of all upcoming seminars and conferences. We aim to list everything from niche meetings to screenings of science-based films and plays. You can even post your own events.
  • Read the latest news, views and historical insights in the news sections of our featured cities. And then discuss these articles via our commenting system.
  • Browse local jobs listings.

A lot of this stuff looks really cool, especially the ability to create lab- and city-based groups and forums. Blogs are also really handy to have in that context. So, this idea has a lot of potential to be a real force in the scientific world, especially given the huge amount of credibility and prestige the Nature brand has. On the other hand, they have tarnished that brand a bit in the last few years with what are perceived as a bunch of cash-grab publications. So, which side does Nature Network fall on?

Overall, I think it's a great idea, one that deserves a long and happy life: the idea of a social networking space dedicated to science and scientists, that they can build up into something that will increase their productivity and better communication about science both among scientists and with an interested general public.

So, how's the execution? Right now, not so good. In particular, there seems to be very little user-generated content to this point.

Some thoughts:

  • The People, Groups and Forums are conceptually separate in a way that they probably shouldn't be. The boundaries here should be very loose, more open and lot easier to navigate. Do you really need a Forum without a Group? Maybe people should only exist in the context of a Group/Forum as a way of drawing users in, but still letting people that aren't in a Group/Forum read and post? I think this area needs one main page that features a lot more of the interaction going on in terms of active Groups and Forums. Too many layers to dig down to get to where the good stuff should be.

  • The Blogging module is a bit of a mess. There are only about 30 total blogs, and almost none of them are active. There have only been three posts in the last week on all the blogs. Most of the blogs only have a handful of posts. I think that there's a couple of things that they needed to do differently here. First of all, they needed to recruit a couple of prolific bloggers to the network right away, to create a lot of content from the beginning and attract committed new bloggers. Most of the blogs on the site now only have a few posts and were probably created and abandoned almost immediately. They haven't thrown the blogging system open to the world like Blogger (you have to request a blog), which is probably a good thing. On the other hand, they haven't really attracted a core of bloggers that will make the Network attractive to visit or create any kind of buzz in the scientific world. For people to request a blog, the community has to seem worth joining either in the case of someone who already has a blog and would consider moving it or for someone who is just testing the waters. You don't have to look much farther than Seed's ScienceBlogs site to find a fantastic model for a science-oriented blogging community and it's a shame that Nature doesn't seem to have learned anything from them.

  • There needs to be a much greater use of RSS to aggregate and feed out the content. I shouldn't have to go to the site to see what's happening on my favourite forum. For example, there's no way to get all the posts from all the blogs. And at less than one post per day amongst all the blogs, this is probably the best way. Also, blog and forum content should be combined and fed out for the various tags.

  • Too much relies on signing up, and signing up is a pain.

  • The system may work best for people that are part of a pre-defined lab or institution, and there are already a bunch of those signed up, but there has to be a way to leverage that content for the rest of us.

  • The biggest thing keeping me from coming back is a lack of content, especially blogs. Since I'm not drawn to the site, I'm not creating any content myself. Vicious cycle. Most of the Groups and Forums that already exist have few members and few or no posts. The main pages for those modules really need to draw people in and get them to join and contribute.

Overall, I would have to say this is a good case study on how not to create a social networking site. I was hoping to be entranced and engaged, to be almost forced to join a bunch of groups and forums by the vital, vibrant scientific community just waiting there for me. There's not much buzz or cool factor, content is hidden beneath layers, nothing drags new users into the site and gets them contributing immediately. I think they need to take a look at what ScienceBlogs has done for an idea of how to implement a good blogging community; Facebook, Myspace, et al for a glimmer of coolness and human connectivity. It's just a bit dull, and the lack of user-generated content on the site is a both a cause and a reflection of that. I wanted to be drawn back, but I just wasn't.

The object lesson for us as libraries and librarians? If we build a social network that we want to succeed, the key point will be getting students, faculty and staff to buy in and contribute. There's not much sadder than a social networking site that's not attracting much user-generated input or much real networking. How do you prime the pump in a social networking space when your contributors aren't doing it just for fun, but as just another part of their jobs/schoolwork? Is the secret to make the social network seem like just a new way to procrastinate when in reality it's a serious contribution to a meaningful community?

If anyone cares, this is me.

(PS. to Nature Network team: if you want to touch base on this, my email is jdupuis at yorku dot ca. I'd be glad to help out with a next iteration.)

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