JFarrow has a knack for tweaking, manipulating, and displaying all kinds of content on his Ning Network, Land Surveyor's United. He's been on Ning for a number of years, and whenever he drops by Creators to drop a tip, he turns heads with something new he's created, hacked, or ported into his network. We asked him a few questions about the history of his network and how he built it. How the heck did he get so good at this?
You run a network for land surveyors. What is a land surveyor, exactly?
Well, land surveying is perhaps the oldest profession known to man. A land surveyor is both an artist and a scientist with the job of accurately determining the terrestrial or three-dimensional position of points and the distances and angles between them. These points are usually on the surface of the Earth, and they are often used to establish land maps and boundaries for ownership or governmental purposes. In other words, ever since there has been land ownership, there have been surveyors.
Is Land Surveyor’s United an association? What's its genesis?
I originally created the network under the name of my father's business, which sold land-surveying equipment such as GPS, construction levels, and machine controls locally out of Charleston, S.C. When the U.S. economy went bust a few years back, construction went, too (ergo, less demand for surveying). And so did my father's business. What has always set him apart from the rest has been his willingness to support the equipment he sold (very rare in this industry). I tried to help both surveyors and my father by creating a place where surveyors can get together and help each other troubleshoot real-life problems in real time. I discovered that a surveyor's best tech support is another experienced surveyor.
How did you get your network up and running?
I started it up and put it into operation under an alias: namely, my dad. When his local, thriving supply business began to plummet, I turned his company into something that went in the opposite direction. It didn't change what he did or what he knew, it just expanded his reach and ability to help surveyors solve problems, something he is very passionate about. After a while, though, I started to feel like people had the wrong idea about the site — that it was a sales site for surveying equipment, which couldn't be farther from the truth. So, I took over administration of the network with my own profile about one year later, and I began to de-emphasize equipment sales and concentrate on the culture of surveying as a whole, globally. I handle the administration, and I simply refer my dad to surveyors looking for equipment when and if the subject arises. ePalmetto [a surveying supply company] handles any and all equipment sales, bartering, and negotiations on LSU. This demotivates salespeople from joining the site simply to sell equipment and spam my members. With this out of the way, I can concentrate on building a real community with integrity and social support.
What do land surveyors get out of your network? How do you reach them?
Land surveying is not a glamorous job, by any means. It is some of the hardest work one can imagine, requiring technical knowledge and skills that can only be perfected through years of experience. Land surveyors are also usually working in the field, away from the Internet more than most jobs. Only just recently with mobile innovations on the Web has there ever been a way for surveyors to have access to knowledge bases and support documents from the field. Basically, I picked the absolute toughest niche on the planet for a social network. To put this in perspective, I currently have a little over 1,400 members (after four years of gradual membership gain), which is essentially like 10,000-30,000 members on any other network. Surveyors for the most part keep to themselves, protecting the knowledge and resources they utilize. A really experienced land surveyor knows tricks of measurement and time that will blow your mind. Historically, surveyors have always belonged to segregated associations which have effectively splintered communication within as a whole. Land Surveyors United was the absolute first true global community of surveyors on Earth, eliminating cultural divides and providing a real place for surveyors to share their knowledge and preserve surveying history. So, LSU is a cross-cultural trans-associated association of associations. It’s kind of a big deal.
Why did you start using Ning?
I must admit that my initial reasoning behind starting a network on Ning was because it was free, because it had mobile access, and because I had a bone to pick with the surveying industry. I wanted to show them that things that have always set them apart should actually be discussed for the benefit of the whole industry. I took it as a personal responsibility to show surveyors the power of social media, communication, and making their voices heard using free tools and that, indeed, it was possible to share those ideas which had always been perceived as "job security" but that would be better understood by sharing experiences socially, within a community based on integrity and future-oriented goals — all while preserving surveying history.
That was the theory I had. If Surveyor A in Oklahoma, USA had a particular way that he accomplished finding a solution in the field, there was a good chance that Surveyor B in Bangladesh might arrive at the same result using a slightly different method. Both methods can be the correct way to go about the process (provided the solution is accurate), but the only difference is a matter of perspective. I wanted to help surveyors have a community to do this. However, when Ning started to charge, I admit I was frustrated at first, but I found ways to make the network generate some sort of income to pay for the fees and maintenance, and I began accepting member donations. This was when I realized how important the network truly had become to the everyday surveyor. They needed it. Donations started to trickle in. Enough to pay for the network, and that is all I wanted. In the end, Land Surveyors United does not belong to me, it belongs to them. If they didn't need it or want it, it would simply go away.
Was the LSU site the first network you created on Ning?
Yes. As a graduate student and aspiring doctorate of applied cultural anthropology, I wanted to create a new way to engage an entire culture of some sort, document change over time, and eventually study the changes in a social-scientific manner. In anthropology, the idea is to participate and observe a culture that I am not a native of. Although I surveyed land myself back in the early 90's before undergrad, I am not a surveyor today. I simply want to facilitate bonds between hard-working people in this industry and make a positive difference in their methods of communicating. So far, so good.
What’s your advertising strategy and how did you arrive at that strategy?
It wasn't until my network was around three-and-a-half years old that I even began to start taking interest in advertising of any sort. One of my initial motivations for building LSU was to combat the negative effects that traditional surveying-related advertising has had on the industry as a whole by simply not advertising at all. These days, I am more open to promotions between members for a donation to the network, rather than full-blown, big-biz, affiliate advertising.
You clearly know a few things about widgets and CSS. How did you learn all that?
It’s pretty funny how all of this developed. The only “C” I ever got in college was in computer class. I guess I had something to prove. I am a visual learner, self taught at pretty much everything. In the beginning, I did use widgets, as they seemed like pretty simple ways to mash up information and provide it in a compact fashion. The more I learned about HTML, the more I learned about CSS. The more I learned about CSS, the more I enjoyed experimenting with my network. I only really came to the Creators forum about half-way through my second year in. I became really inspired by one other NC, the wonderfully helpful Jen. Not because she made things look easy (which she can and will) but because of her willingness to think outside of the box and provide her findings as tips to complete strangers for no other reason except for her enjoyment of watching a proof-of-concept become fully realized. CSS is an amazing language to learn, and it can enable you to communicate ideas in visual ways that words cannot at times. These days, I avoid widgets because they slow down your network and prefer to experiment with ways to manipulate the native Ning architecture using CSS and JQuery. How did I learn all of this stuff? Trail and error mostly.
What’s a typical land surveyor’s pet peeve?
Surveyors take a lot of pride in what they know, not because they know due to being taught or told something, but because experience tells them so. In order for something to be real to a surveyor, there must be evidence and a logical reason, otherwise it is speculation and among an entire myriad of other useless possibilities. A well-trained surveyor's pet peeve is to be told that they are wrong when evidence tells them that they are right, especially without some pretty damn good logical explanation.
What can us non land surveyors do to help you out?
Nothing really, aside from aspiring to learn more about the importance of land surveyors to the public. Every single aspect of both public and private property ownership, community parks, geographic orientation, location-related information and services, civil engineering, and virtually all aspects of man's relationship with the physical world relies on the accuracy and precision produced by a land surveyor at some point in time. The delineation between here and there and every other place is the product of careful calculation and passionate error reductions performed by land surveyors. If you have a friend who is a surveyor, invite them to join LSU and share what they know and become better at what they do.
What should Ning build next that would benefit your network the most?
There are a couple of features that I desperately need: the ability to modify the "head" info on my pages and, more specifically, the ability to attach true geolocation to pages without having to hack it. Which brings me to the much needed ability to attach geolocation to my feeds (without a hack) and thus producing GeoRSS feeds which can be mapped (without a hack). I love to hack Ning, but I wish I didn't have to for important stuff. I also wish for Design Studio for Groups and the ability to move modules around within Groups. Finally, I need more control over size and style of Photos/Video slideshows.
What do you think Ning should build that would benefit everyone the most?
Better, more accurate Leaderboard functionality, comment notifications similar to but not exactly like Facebook, and a focus on geolocation. I believe Ning to be a world-class product and I stand behind it. Oh, maybe Ning might like to build me an on-staff position. I think I might like that.
Do you actively seek out work designing networks? Or, are you too busy for that?
I currently pay my bills as a freelance designer, creative director, and consultant. Busy? Yes. I can be hired for projects which are creative, morally sound, and clearly defined. I am available to help tweak, modify, and design aspects of any network owned by someone on the Creators forum. Just send me a message with a way to contact you. I am also interested in discussing plans and creating networks around a concept. We can determine what is needed together and agree upon a goal. Please, if you are in need of my help, remember that I am a student and an artist, so come with clear and creative ideas, along with a little cash and everything will work out nicely. I require some sort of a deposit on any work performed and enjoy to see creative ideas come to life. If you have something in mind, let's rap about it — I'm not hard to find and even easier to talk to.