Wednesday, 22 April 2009

WAYN: the relaunch

WAYN is one travel networking site I've never really got on with. It was a combination of the Twee cartoon mascot, the spam, and those one-line emails from guys trying to pick up a date. There also seemed to be a lot of users that weren't even particularly interested in travel, instead spending most of their free time at home chatting online.

But just because it wasn't for me I wouldn't sneeze at its success. With 15 million members, WAYN is one of the biggest travel-networking sites out there and it boasts many happy, dedicated users.

Nonetheless, the WAYN guys have realised that to keep profiles active they can't rest on their laurels. Not in this field. And so the site has undergone an extensive overhaul, relaunching this week having tackled past criticism head on. (Including bidding adieu to their little cartoon friend.)

You can clearly see the influences of Twitter and Facebook in the new design, but the biggest change of all is that "Where are you now?" seems to have morphed into "What are you doing now?" Users are being encouraged to share intentions through the site - similar to Dopplr - for trips abroad or even something as simple as a local cinema trip.

"One of the main things to admire about WAYN," wrote Travolution this week, "is that they have never been afraid to re-engineer the business, and talk about it so publicly." The article continues with praise for the founders' brute honest, quoting cofounder Jerome Touze as saying, "We have done some things right, but have done many things very wrong. I look at some things now and say: 'what the f**k were we thinking."

Sometimes this is just what we want a social-network founder to say. It translates as "we're human; we make mistakes; we're learning and adapting". That's all any of us can do in this ever-changing field.

Dedicated social-network users often come to feel like that they "own" the sites as much as the founders. They need to feel that their voices are being listened to and they're not being dictated to. Site founders have to be careful not to become bigger than their sites. This is how nearly came a cropper. A massive technical hitch in 2006 led founder Casey Fenton to send an email to all members announcing the site was unsalvageable and did "not exist anymore". This provoked outrage ("how can he give up now?", "how can he take our networks of friends away from us?"). There was even talk of legal action. However, it ended happily when volunteers banded together to save it, Casey came back on board, and the project went on to become the version-two site that we have today.

When tipped its millionth member earlier this year, this figure seemed huge and an incredible sign of success. Remind yourself that WAYN has 15 times that many and suddenly Jerome's claim to have "done some things right" seem like quite the understatement. As the social-networking market gets increasingly crowded, let's see where it goes from here.