Fortuitous timing and long-term vision propels Lanyrd beyond Twitter
As reported on Lanyrd's blog, the 'social conference directory' has had a major update. Now it's possible to sign in to Lanyrd with LinkedIn, in order to get conference recommendations (and more) based on your LinkedIn profile and connections. Previously, Lanyrd relied on you having a Twitter account. Twitter remains a sign-in option, and Lanyrd now also offers the means to sign in with an email address and password.
The news follows LinkedIn's decision to shut down LinkedIn Events, and positions Lanyrd to take over from that service. We spoke to co-founder Simon Willison about the reasoning behind Lanyrd's decision and the challenges the team faced.
.net: Larger social networks have a tendency towards bloat, but do you think what you're doing is a good example of how smaller, focussed social platforms can fulfil a much-needed requirement?
Willison: That's definitely part of our thinking. The context here is that until the day before yesterday, the only way to use Lanyrd was to sign in with Twitter. We could then look at who you're following and show events those people are attending and speaking at. Historically, there are reasons we did that. Lanyrd started as a side project. When we first launched, Lanyrd was a two-week hack—an idea we thought would be interesting to experiment with. We absolutely didn't want to deal with our own social network and sign-in at that stage.
.net: So why did you initially integrate so heavily with Twitter?
Willison: We'd noticed its strong affinity with conferences. Back-channels were based on hash-tags, and speakers would have their Twitter name on their presentation's first slide. We decided to explore that intersection of people who like going to events and those who use Twitter. When that turned out much quicker than expected, we realised there was an opportunity to build a business.
.net: At what point did you realise you'd need to move beyond Twitter?
Willison: At the very start. What surprised us was that we managed to stay Twitter-only for much longer than we thought we would. Twitter just keeps on breaking into new industries. A couple of years ago, it was mainly tech conferences using it, but now it's marketing, journalism and others.
That said, we knew we'd have to move beyond Twitter at some point, because most industries haven't adopted Twitter as much as those I mentioned. There are also related problems: just because you're following someone on Twitter, that doesn't mean they're a good source of recommendations. Also, if you're on Lanyrd and find someone you admire, you couldn't track that person unless you followed them on Twitter—even if they were really noisy. So the new release enables you to track people on Lanyrd without following them on Twitter and vice-versa.
.net: Was it planning or just fortuitous timing that you released this new Lanyrd as LinkedIn was shuttering its own events service?
Willison: We'd already started the work—we'd had stuff running internally for a while that we'd been experimenting with. But, yes, we rushed forward the release, which was originally planned to be out in a few weeks' time.
.net: How does the new Lanyrd work when it comes to integration with other networks?
Willison: Going back to your first question, the key thing is that you're right in it making sense in social to have niche social networks, for niche lists of people you get recommendations from. But at the same time, the last thing we want to do is have people sign up for Lanyrd and have to go through multiple screens of friend-finding. So the way we've chosen to do this at the moment is when you sign in with Twitter or LinkedIn, we default tracking to people you know on those services who are also using Lanyrd. We give you the option to turn that off if you want to individually manage who you're following, but for the vast majority of people it makes no sense to have to micro-manage.
.net: Were there any big challenges in adding this new functionality?
Willison: The biggest was dealing with multiple accounts. Say someone signs in with Twitter, forgets, and later signs in with LinkedIn. Now they have two accounts, which isn't ideal. So we built a user-merging thing. If you sign in and then opt to attach another account you've already signed in with, you'll get the option to merge them and we'll show you what the merge will look like. We're working more on the flow of this now, because it's been one of our biggest support requests: people signing in and realising they have two accounts.
From a technical point of view, merging can be pretty hairy. We've got user objects attached to all sorts of things around the site. Also, we had to devise a way of undoing this. What you don't want is someone accidentally merging two accounts—like a company's Twitter account and a personal one—and not being able to reverse that. At the moment, we dump out to a JSON object representing what was merged together, so if we have to unpick it, we have enough data to undo the 'damage'.
.net: Finally, for those people who'd used LinkedIn Events, why should they give Lanyrd a try?
Willison: If you're promoting your event, and you want people to discover events, Lanyrd does that in much the same way LinkedIn did. But the value we add is the much deeper layer of meta data, the deeper model we build on these events. So we have things like the list of speakers, the session schedule, and a selection of slides, video and notes. One of our key value propositions to people already using LinkedIn is we can act as their speaker portfolio—LinkedIn can be their resum and Lanyrd can be their portfolio about talks they've given and what they're doing in the future.