Sociable Is The New Black

One of the problems Sociable has is that it can be incredibly tacky. Yes, speaking as officially as possible, I’m saying lots of links to social bookmarking sites at the end of your posts are ugly. So let me address why I wrote a plugin that’s easily used to make blogs ugly.

A lot of web surfers have never heard of social bookmarking sites (SBS). Gasp, shock, horror, not everyone is up-to-date on the web 2.0 meme. I put a little introduction to SBS in the hover text for newbies, and deliberately didn’t make it editable through the admin interface so that it wouldn’t get changed into a thousand variations on “OMG CLIK & MAK MY BLOGG POPULER!”. Users can (and do) edit it in the PHP, but as Sociable users are not especially technically savvy it’s uncommon.

More experienced users say linking to SBS is hammy because not every reader uses them, because the sites provide their own bookmarklets and plugins, etc. I don’t disagree. Sociable exists because blog authors want more traffic and SBS are a great way to get it. Sociable exists for the same reason grocery stores put candy in the checkout lanes and Amazon lets you buy books with one click: as soon as readers finish a post they’re reminded they can share it with others, it’s the web 2.0 equivalent of the impulse buy.

I wrote Sociable because I wanted to add those links to the bottom of my blog posts. I thought writing a WordPress plugin would be fun, and other people might like to use it. With all that in mind, let me talk about the graphic design decisions I made.

By default, Sociable only adds icons to posts when they’re displayed on individual pages and not on the front page, archives, search results, or feeds. A whole lot of users set Sociable to display everywhere with predictably bad results. I added this option because I’ve seen blogs that don’t have (or don’t prefer to use) pages for individual posts, just archive pages. I weighed this decision heavily but decided in this case that it’s better to support more users than stop all users from shooting themselves in the foot. (This option is a pretty good analogy for the different design philosophies behind Unix and OS X.)

The other big default is to show all SBS icons, and it’s getting worse and worse. New SBS contact me about once each week to get added, so pretty soon the default is going to pass from humorous overkill into a sprawling mess. (And let me parenthetically tip my hat to the folks who’ve realized it’s intentionally silly.) I’m not sure what to do about this one yet. If I have them all off by default, I’m going to get inundated with mails from people who’ve installed it and rightly say it doesn’t work out of the box. Bad first experience. If I turn on only the most popular few by default, there’s an ugly “rich get richer” effect. I haven’t thought of a good solution and would appreciate advice.

Lastly, I tried to keep the visual clutter down as much as possible in the default CSS. There’s a caption, and then the icons without adornment, period. The CSS even has to deliberately strip away a lot of visual styling that different blog themes would otherwise add. Most of the noise comes from the fact that the sites’ icons are all visually dissimilar with different color palletes. Any random blog is guaranteed that most of them won’t match the blog theme, let alone each other.

At the moment I’m looking at it as a good incentive for blog owners to prune down the number of sites they display, but it probably needs more help. One user had a creative solution to display icons in grayscale until they’re hovered over, and I’ll include that feature (probably in the next version).

I hope I’ve addressed the valid concerns of critics, and I appreciate any advice for further improvements.

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