I think it's pretty safe to say that none of this "Web 2.0" business, bubble or no bubble, would've gotten off the ground if it weren't for Ajax. It's a term that techies throw around a lot, and miraculously, the meaning doesn't seem to have gotten terribly distorted: Ajax still refers to the set of Web development techniques that may render obsolete the phenomenon of the page view count. And since it's pretty cool--I mean, try to imagine a world without Google Maps or Flickr--some start-ups seem to like to use as much Ajax as possible. But it's like over-watering a plant. Stuff can drown.
That's it for my superficial little schpiel about Ajax, which I promise is somewhat relevant to this writeup of the currently-private beta of Tangler, an Australian social media service that's hoping to put a new spin on the traditional Web discussion group. It shouldn't be too difficult a task: discussion groups like Yahoo Groups and Google Groups didn't experience a technological revamp amid the Web 2.0 madness, and forum sites haven't seen much change since PHP conquered CGI a few years ago. And indeed, it's about time that this sector of social media saw some Ajaxing (Ajaxization? Ajaxicizing?), so in many ways, Tangler is a welcome addition to the Web.
I spoke with Mick Liubinskas, Tangler's product marketing guru, to get the company's own perspective. After all, I wasn't sure whether they wanted it to have a social-networking spin (i.e. finding other people) or whether they were orienting it towards already-existing groups that wanted to beef up their online presence (as many Meetup groups and Yahoo or Google Groups work). Liubinskas offered this background to me: Web 2.0 has spawned plenty of ways for people to talk one-on-one (instant messaging, social networking) or send out a general "broadcast" (podcasting, blogging). But when it comes to groups, Tangler's creators decided to create something more in-depth than chat rooms but more efficient than forum sites.
So here's how Tangler works. Any member can create a group and then invite people to join, or wait for other Tangler members to stumble upon the group via search or browsing. When posting to a group, you can start your own topic or reply to an existing topic. Sounds familiar, right? The differences lie, basically, in the 2.0-ishness. Naturally, there are desktop notifiers and Firefox extensions available now--after all, it seems like you've got to have a Firefox add-on if you're going to sit at the cool kids' table these days. Reloading is completely out of the question, as the wonders of Ajax make it possible for posts to appear in almost-real-time. Additionally, if there are new messages in a group's other topics, you'll be alerted of that too. Liubinskas also underscored the fact that Tangler has easy media-sharing functions: "One of the innovations that our users are loving is the ability to put video into a discussion," he told me. "Sometimes the video is the topic and sometimes it's a response. You can play a YouTube video right there in the discussion."
There are, of course, problems. It goes without saying that there are still plenty of bugs, which the management team seems to deal with very effectively. But beyond that, there are some more serious issues. On the most superficial level, Tangler is plagued by sandbox syndrome--rather than telling you what the product is good for, it gives a vague description and basically tells you to go play in it and have fun. It's similar to what I thought of uber-organizer Kaboodle a few months ago: I don't like it when a service just puts its product out there and tells me that I could use it for absolutely anything. I'd rather have some gentle hints as to what it's actually going to be most effective for, especially since "You can put YouTube videos in it!" isn't enough to convince me that I should ditch Google Groups. There are plenty of ways that Tangler could solve this once it enters a public beta or full version; the suggestion that came to mind for me would be to have some kind of "featured groups" blurb on the home page (which could use some graphical spicing-up anyway).
Additionally, it looks like Tangler's creators got tangled up in the service's potential coolness and overlooked a few important points. As far as actual functionality goes, Tangler is a bit tepid. Posts in a topic are listed in a single thread; you can only reply to the thread, not to individual posts in it. And, until very recently, there wasn't even a way to delete a post. I feel like it's too early to make a concrete judgment, since a lot of these kinks can be ironed out while Tangler's software is still in private beta. But in its current form, it's living proof that saturating a site in Ajax doesn't automatically make it a usable piece of webware. Kind of like how dumping cups and cups of water on your herb garden won't guarantee tastier mint leaves.
Overall, I think the groups-and-forums sector of the Internet is overdue for a makeover. Some of Tangler's features are, in my opinion, a taste of things to come for sure. And--I can't reiterate this enough--it's not even an open beta yet. This product could change immensely, for better or worse. And if it changes for the better we could see a very influential social-media start-up, or a sought-after M&A target.
P.S.: If you want to try out Tangler, I have a few beta test invitations left. Interested readers may post their requests in the comments. First come, first serve!