Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Leah Neaderthal discusses the Chainlink

By John Greenfield

The Chainlink (,) a social networking website for Chicago bicyclists, was born only nine months ago, but with over 1,600 members it has already become a dominant force in the local cycling scene. After living and pedaling in Chicago for several years, Nashville native Leah Neaderthal launched the site last July with the goal of connecting what she saw as a fragmented biking community. It’s one of the few of the few city-specific social networking sites for bicyclists in existence, and it’s sure to become a model for other towns.

The site lets cyclists chat on-line, find out about bike routes, rides and events, and learn about clubs, organizations and other web resources that help them get more out of life on a bike in the Windy City. Recent forum discussion topics include fast weekly rides; insurance for cyclists; tips for riding under El tracks; and the Tweed Ride celebration of British bikes and fashions.

The events calendar lists a women’s ride series sponsored by Alberto’s Cycles; the new North Side Critical Mass; a fix-a-flat workshop at an REI in Northbrook; and a party in Andersonville to celebrate 3.5 years of being car-free. “Useful Links” include resources for maps, bike blogs like this one, shops, clubs, and the Stolen Bike Registry. 80 discussion groups range from Chicago Randonneurs distance riders; South Side Riders; Eat to Ride, Ride to Eat foodies; Velo Yoga; and Tandemonium.

Vote With Your Feet recently caught up with Neaderthal at a coffee shop in Uptown to discuss the history of the Chainlink and her ideas for its future.

What’s your personal history with bicycling?

As an adult I got into cycling through spinning and then I thought, “This is probably fun outside too.” I bought a hybrid bike and I just started riding. After a few rides I realized this was not the bike I needed - I wanted to go very fast. By coincidence that bike was stolen so I bought a road bike and I’ve been riding it ever since along the lakefront. In the past year I’ve been riding more in the city, to go out and to work and to do other stuff.

I saw photos of your three bikes on the site. Which do you use for commuting mostly?

I use the blue Fuji road bike – it’s the first road bike I got. I like the fixed gear but I discovered recently that it has a lot of toe overlap and that makes me feel really unsafe. And it also gave me three flats in a row after three days of riding it, so I’m a little bit over it. But I’ll have to pick it up again because I really enjoy riding it in the city.

You have a rack on the fixie. That’s kind of unusual.

Yeah, I bought that to be a commuter bike. There was a time when I was taking my laptop around a lot and it would make my backpack really heavy, so I kept my laptop on my back and put the rest of the stuff on the rack.

What’s your day job?

I do marketing for a software company. It’s a sales and marketing software called Savo and I’m in their marketing group, focusing on event marketing.

So that gave you some background for creating the Chainlink?

Yeah. My job prior to that was at an interactive advertising agency where we did web design and visibility, so I had background there. But coming to this job has definitely prepped me more to do a site like this. In fact one of the guys I worked with turned me on to Ning for the first time – that’s the platform that the site’s built on. So working with tech people has definitely had its advantages.

How did you get the idea to start the Chainlink – what’s its history?

It started for a couple reasons. I’d riding in the city for several years by myself. None of my friends were into cycling and I wasn’t connected to a scene at all. I thought it was hard to meet other cyclists. I did Critical Mass a couple of times, I’d do a Chicago Cycling Club ride maybe once a year but I never really had a network of people to tap into.

I like to do distance rides and I wanted to find some other people who like to ride like me. I did the AIDS Ride last year and when I came back all I wanted to do was ride centuries, really long rides. I went to every little website I knew of – Chicago Cycling Club, Wheeling Wheelmen, this group and that group and this group. I put them all into a Word document and sent it to all my friends and asked “Who wants to do this with me?” and nobody did.

I thought to myself, if I’m doing this other people are probably looking for this kind of information too. And I went on a Chicago Cycling Club ride where this guy was like, “I just moved here. How the hell do you find out about stuff?” So I put everything together. It’s a combination of something that lets people know what’s going on and allows them to actually connect with others that ride like they do.

You might go to Critical Mass and meet others that are into advocacy but you might not meet someone who wants to do 100 miles on a Saturday at 18 MPH. It’s hard to meet cyclists who want to ride the way you wanna ride. Same thing, if you were into advocacy and went on a Wheeling Wheelmen ride you’d might meet older men and women who want to ride to the Botanic Gardens but you might not meet other people who are into advocacy. So it’s creating a place where people can connect.

The idea for the Chainlink actually started as a women’s cycling club and then I went through that exercise of finding all the rides that I wanted to do, and then I just decided to scale that to everybody. I got the website idea and talked to someone at my company about Ning. I bought the domain name on a Thursday and worked all weekend on the site and on Monday I launched it. It was pretty quick. It’s been nine months since then and it’s got over 1,600 members. It’s growing very quickly.

Is anyone else working with you on this?

Julie Hochstadter is helping me out with marketing and she’s connecting me with key people in the bike community. She’s much more connected than I was when I first started this. She acts as a moderator on the site too. [Longtime Critical Mass rider] Howard Kaplan is a moderator as well.

As moderators are they reading everything that’s posted on there?

We're reading most things. Certain things are brought to our attention like, hey, can you check this out and do something about this. A lot of times we’ll see something where somebody’s attacking someone else or somebody’s posting illicit material or sexually explicit stuff or whatever. That’s actually such a small part of it. We really don’t have a lot of problems on the site.

The site has forums, groups, announcements, discussions – it seems like there’s so many different messages that could be posted. How could three people keep track of all that? Have you divided them up into different sections that each of you are responsible for?

Not really. It’s very relaxed moderating. And most of what we have to do revolves around the forums, because that’s where the conversations take place. If somebody puts an event on the calendar, like if a shop is doing something one day a week and it stays on the top of the calendar for a whole week, that’s something where we might check in with the shop and ask them to re-post it or do something else.

Somebody might post something on the forum and a lot of the time people might e-mail us and say somebody posted something sexual and we’ll have to deal with it. We rely on people reporting stuff.

How much time a week do you spend on maintaining the site?

Maybe 12 to 15 hours a week. It was a lot more when I first started it. Some weeks it’s more than that because I have meetings to talk to people about stuff. Usually once a week I’m meeting with someone to talk about the Chainlink. In the evenings I’m asking people to post things on the calendar, I’m writing the newsletter, I’m working with our graphic designer on posters or something like that. We’ve been advertising the site with stickers and flyers and for the first time we’re going to have posters this year, to put up in bike shops and cafes and community centers.

There’s advertising on the website. Is it your goal to make a living off it?

It doesn’t make me any money actually. The site is built on Ning and their business model is they will let you build a social network for free but Ning takes up some of the real estate and puts up ads. So if somebody clicks on it Ning gets the revenue – I don’t get the revenue. That’s how they make money and that’s how they can provide the platform to me for free.

So Ning is a platform which worked better for this than using Blogspot [VWYF’s platform] which is free and you can post your own ads and make money off it.

I was looking at the blog format but blogs have to be published by one or a few people and can be commented on by many others. This I wanted to really be a community site so anybody could post anything, anytime, in any way they want. Ning has a calendar built into it, it has photos, and all of that can be community driven, whereas on a blog it’s kind of one to many, or a few to many, but this is for everybody.

So I don’t get any revenue off it and that’s on purpose. I did not want to try to launch a site and get advertising all at the same time. It seemed like a huge undertaking. I would like to make some money off it but this is a community site so of course some of that money will have to go to community projects. That’s my goal.

Kind of like Planet Bike [bike accessories manufacturer] donating 25% of their profits to bike advocacy.

Yeah, but it would all be based into Chicago, giving back to the Chicago community.

Have you thought about what causes you might wanna give to?

Not really. Blackstone Bikes [community cycle center] is a good one but I’d have to look into that more. It’s a half-baked idea because I think the profit from this is going to be well down the road. In order to make a profit I would have to buy from Ning the right to have my own ads.

So you’re going to wait until you determine that you can make enough money from ads to pay Ning and start making profits on top of that?

Yeah. I would want to recoup all the money I’ve already put into this – it’s all been self-funded. It hasn’t been ridiculously expensive but, for example, we have t-shirts for sale and I bought the shirts. We sold them at the thousand member party on February 19th at Nick’s in Wicker Park.

How’d the thousand member party go?

It went really well. We had over a hundred people there and we had a raffle for prizes donated by shops and by Active Transportation Alliance, and Specialized donated some stuff and ZYM electrolyte replacement drink donated some stuff. It was awesome.

You guys have monthly meet-ups at bars too?

Yeah. People wanted to be able to meet one another without riding, especially during the winter, and just talk bikes. So we switch locations every month. It’s been pretty good. Last month’s was a the Skylark in Pilsen. This month’s is at Hidden Shamrock [2723 N. Halstead in Lincoln Park on Thursday May 21 from 8 pm to midnight.]

We put it there because one of the very early members of the site was this guy named Mike who works there and he’s really nice to us. For the first meet-up he invited us to go there and gave us a special on beer and for a while we kept it there, so we’ve been meaning to go back there. He’s one of the “original gangsters” of the site.

Has anything unique or surprising come out of the existence of the Chainlink?

There’s a couple things. At its core the Chainlink connects people who otherwise wouldn’t connect and who wouldn’t be involved in the same conversations. So you have a bike messenger talking to a Category One racer about stems. And you have someone who comes on and says, “I’m brand new to cycling and I’m looking to get into it for weight loss. What can you tell me about X?” You have people chiming in who wouldn’t otherwise find themselves talking.

Someone came on and said, “I was at a Critical Mass eight months ago and at this mass someone was hit by a cab and as they were taken away to the hospital they left a lot of stuff and I picked it up. If this is your stuff let me know.” And it happened to be [Midnight Marauders co-founder] Martin Hazard’s stuff and someone came on and said, “I think this is Martin’s,” and Martin came on and said, “Yeah, that’s mine. It happened eight months ago – how did you find it?” So that was pretty cool.

I bet there’ll be a lot of stuff like that in the future: people being witnesses to hit-and-run crashes and recovering stolen bikes.

Somebody told a story about a bike that she recovered. She found it on Craigslist. It didn’t happen because of the Chainlink but Chainlinkers were chiming in and I think they helped her out. She might have gotten the bike back otherwise but it was an enlightening story for the community.

And you post Craigslist bike-related Missed Connections on the Chainklink.

That’s a fun thing. But what I’ve said from the beginning is there are people and groups and institutions that are already doing great things and we don’t want to replace them. So we don't want to have our own Missed Connections because it already exists on Craigslist. So the Chainlink is not about replacing but about aggregating, bringing different people and things together.

The obvious thing that the Chainlink is replacing is the Chicago Critical Mass listserv. It appears that there’s less and less postings on that since the Chainlink started. I’m not saying that’s good or bad – some people feel that’s a good thing. But if you created the Chainlink because you wanted the cycling scene to be less fragmented, what do you think it means that the Chainlink is making the Critical Mass list irrelevant?

The conversations that were taking place on the Critical Mass listserv are still taking place. They’re just not taking place in people’s inboxes, they’re taking place on the site. And they’re actually bringing more people into those conversations. It’s putting those conversations in a central place and recording them. Like if I saw a year ago that somebody had a really good suggestion for bike clubs on the CCM list I’d have to go back through my inbox and maybe I deleted it. So the Chainlink brings all that good stuff in one place and packages it. And other people can chime in who aren’t on the listserv.

Trust me, I’ve heard it from other people too. The Chainlink was never designed to replace the CCM list or Critical Mass. I wasn’t even really on Critical Mass. What it’s doing is opening up these conversations to so many more people. When we poled people a while back using Zoomerang, we found that about 75% of the people who are on the site are not a member of any bike group. I call them “un-grouped.” There are just kind of like little islands of cyclists who weren’t privy to the conversations on the CCM list.

There are thousands of cyclists out there and there were, I think, 500 people on the CCM list and maybe 50 members of Chicago Cycling Club. There are so many people who are un-grouped. So this gives them an outlet.

Have any other unusual things come out of the Chainlink?

If they have I haven’t heard about it. I know that some people have gone on dates with people that they’ve met on a ride that they heard about through the site. Or somebody friended someone and they started talking about something and wound up going on dates. But we don’t have any Chainlink babies yet.


Bob said...

Good article. Thanks, John. I signed up for Chainlink early on, and it was nice to learn a little more about it, about Leah, and how it serves a balance between a mailing list and a group.

There's so much stuff written now it's hard to keep up with everything!

Anonymous said...

Chainlink has been around since early 2009.

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