Sociable Is The New Black «

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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.


  1. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for your response. I should clarify that I still think your plugin is useful. A lot of people really *want* social bookmarking icons on their blogs and while I think they seem cluttersome, others won’t :)

    You make it really easy for those people to have that feature on their blog – your plugin is well-written.


  2. I’ve had this loaded since the first day you came out with it and once setting it to the multiple icons that I have, I haven’t looked back. It sounds like you are griping at everybody for using it that doesn’t have just a few icons like yourself. To me, that’s what diversity an choices are all about, I don’t understand what the problem is.

    I would love to see it greyed out unless it was hovered over, that takes care of different theme’s color pallettes and makes it a little fancy at the same time, great idea.

    Thanks again.

  3. Peter, almost everything people do on the net is critique. Weigh in with their opinions. Screw them. You have created something. Its far easier to cut something down than create. Empowering people by giving them options is a wonderful thing.

    Your question as to which sites to include is a valid one. The answer in my mind is clear: only the popular sites. Young startups shouldn’t be included unless they are popular. You decide, its your baby.

    So assume you have every single SBS in the list. You don’t have to have them all enabled by default. Enable only the most important. Perhaps only Digg and This might be the happy meduim.

    Initially, when we first started talking, I had envisioned a companion page on social bookmarking sites to advise various website owners as to which SBS they should use. I have been diligently working away on such a page from Sociable V0.01 (the hideous hack ver ;)), describing social bookmarking and would love feedback as well. Keep up the good work!

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  6. I like this plugin, I’ve hacked it a little and will certainly upgrade to get the “greyed out” version.

    By the way, what are the most popule SBS? Digg, Fark, Yahoo!

    Right/Wrong (del as applic.)

  7. I am sorry if this is the wrong place for this comment. I, however, did not know where to post it. I excitedly installed your plugin on my stepfather’s site that I manage for him. It, however, interferes with the magpier plugin.The exact error messeage is:

    “Fatal error: Cannot redeclare parse_w3cdtf() (previously declared in /home/watching/public_html/wp-includes/rss-functions.php:772) in /home/watching/public_html/wp-content/plugins/kiwi/includes/magpierss/ on line 2”

    Any clue on how to fix this? The site is When I activate sociable, my “elsewhere links” disappear. The theme I use is a modifed version of Kiwi.

  8. “Its far easier to cut something down than create.”

    Wrong, its easier to shove things in than to make the difficult choice to leave something out.

  9. I had the sociable plugin active for a while. I decided to take it away because it was confusing even myself in my own posts.

    After thinking it over I have to agree that giving the option of hiding them so only people that know about them can see them would be a great option.

    This can already be done by anyone with a medium knowledge of html and a javascript toggle function that affects a small block (or using a :hover CSS style to show the content, but we know how those work in some browsers).

  10. I don’t use Sociable on the blogs I’m responsible for, but do appreciate it’s function. I’ve even clicked on Sociable-supplied inks a few times to add to my own bookmarks.

    And yes, misuse/overuse of Sociable, like over anything else, can indeed become “NASCAR”-y.

    Moving all to default gray scale is certainly one way to harmonize the visual cacophony, but then you run into the issue of grays not looking right with the rest of the blog. So what about offering custom palettes?

    PNG files are compact, offer the alpha-transparency some of the icons seem to use, and have (relatively) easy to edit color tables. I realize it’s a significantly more complex matter to custom recolor the icons but the results would indeed be harmonious.

    Enter in the colors being used on the website, click generate, and enjoy the now harmonized icons.

    Tables of intermediate & closest-approximation colors are trivial to generate and yield impressive, generally attractive, results. Sure the Delicious icon wouldn’t be a black & blue checkerboard but now a teal & beige one (until hovered over), so what? These icons are house guests on a blog and should be reasonable about their accommodations.

    Of course you’d be relying on external image processing libraries being present on the local systems, something that isn’t going to be universal. A work-around would be offering a service on the Sociable homepage to automagically generate icon packs for folks. Asking for a $5 donation would likely cover the increased overhead, possibly even cover all of the hosting bills.

    Again, it’d be a lot more complexity, but the result would be making so many blogs look nicer.

    (Thinking about it, a clever Photoshop or Fireworks user should be able to write a script to do all of this within those or like applications. Anyone up for it?)

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