Heaven knows, the Web is full of marvellous ways to kill an hour or two when you should be working, but Fanpop may be one of the most addictive. It launched in early August, and describes itself as a "social portal".
The idea is simple: if you’re a fan of something – whether it’s The Simpsons, viral videos, tea or 80s fashion – you can create a ‘spot’ which collects together links to news stories, video clips, blogs, photos, forums and other online resources. All these links are submitted by Fanpop users, who can vote on each other’s links to highlight the best.
Several members of the Shiny Media team have been lost in niche Fanpop spots since discovering it, and the site already has more than 1,000 spots on it. So we thought we’d chat to CEO and co-founder Dave Lu to find out more about it.
Fanpop came about last year, after Lu set up a site called EOSrebels, aimed at owners of Canon’s family of digital SLR cameras. He realised that there was a big community of people interested in news, reviews and other links relating to the cameras, who weren’t being catered to by any portals.
As the site grew, Lu says he realised he was having problems keeping up with the amount of relevant information to cover, but also started to think about something more ambitious: a platform where fans of all kinds of niche interests could come together to swap links and pool information.
"Why not multiply that site by a thousand and give people an easy way to share their links and videoclips for all kinds of niche subjects?" he says. "You can search on Google or Yahoo, but there’s no context around what the results are, to tell you if they’re good. Social bookmarking sites do that kind of thing, but they’re disorganised and tag-based, and don’t build a community around those tags."
This is Fanpop in a nutshell: a more organised social bookmarking service which groups links by category as well as by user. Lu says it’s partly an attempt to recapture the early days of Yahoo’s Web directory, when there weren’t as many websites to list, so users could more easily find what they wanted.
The other thing that sets Fanpop apart from a lot of Web 2.0 sites is that it’s easy to use, even if you’re not a tech-head. In that sense, it’s following the same path as the Vox blogging platform, which we talked to Six Apart’s president Mena Trott about last week.
"We’ve worked really hard on the UI," says Lu. "We wanted people’s mums and dads to be able to use Fanpop. My mum would never go to a site like del.icio.us, as great as it is for the techy types. We want to attract people who wouldn’t go to a social bookmarking site, and we’re already seeing a huge diversity of users, which says a lot to us about our design."
In fact, Lu says Fanpop would almost rather not be lumped in with the Web 2.0 crowd for this very reason, although the site does have some of the more powerful features seen on those sites. For example, it does allow users to submit RSS feeds for spots, but then formats them as ‘headlines’ on the site so as not to put off users who don’t know what RSS is.
“We want to keep the paradigm very simple for them,” says Lu. “Let’s back it up with new technology, but not put it in their face. We have a lot of the features like tags and AJAX forms, but if you don’t understand that stuff, you don’t have to use it. We’re trying to bring together both communities.”
Like Vox, Fanpop is also actively encouraging people to post content and links rather than just browse what other people have submitted. This is partly by spotlighting ‘Top Fans’ on the Fanpop homepage, and also with a medal system, which will reward keen fans as well as provide new user with a way to tell whose links are good. Over time, the best users will be effectively upgraded to ‘admin’ status, to help maintain the site and moderate content.
“It’s important that users feel they have ownership and are taking part,” says Lu. “It will also be important in the scaling of the site, to make sure we are designating the right people to take care of it. Right now, users are good at reporting spam, bad links or bad users to us so we can take care of it, but as time goes on, we’ll have more and more people in our little army!”
That said, Lu says that moderation hasn’t been a huge issue so far for Fanpop, with little spam or adult material – he says, doubtless with crossed fingers, that nobody has yet tried to set up a spot focused on adult content.
So what has surprised Lu since Fanpop launched in early August? He says that sports fans haven’t been as keen to set up spots as expected, possibly because they’re well catered for elsewhere online. However, he’s been pleased and surprised at the sheer diversity of spots that have popped up, from rats through to Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ books, and British bands like the Kaiser Chiefs and, er, Cud. The Web 2.0 and viral video spots have also been popular.
For the future, Lu has big ambitions for Fanpop, citing the fact that many people only use 3-5 websites a day to do stuff like research holidays, find new music or read news about topics that interest them.
“If we could become one of those 3-5 sites, that’d be huge!” he says. “We would love to be a source for people to find new content all the time. If people bracket our site in the same category as the Googles and Yahoos, that’d be great. I don’t know if we’ll ever be a 1000-2000 people company though…”
Time will tell. For the moment, Fanpop is focused on organic growth, including getting more input from fans around the world. Meanwhile, Lu is focused on driving revenues from contextual adverts, which in theory will be perfectly suited to a site made up of a thousand niche interests. As he says: "How much more contextual can you get than cigars?!"