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Platter: novel photo-sharing social network for keen cooks

How do you launch a social networking site in this day and age, long after the likes of Facebook and Twitter seized the world? One answer is "micro-social networks": designed with a clear and specific purpose in mind, they can fulfill that purpose better than any of the generalists like Facebook.

Platter is a new micro-social network app dedicated home cooking. It allows you to take pictures of food you make and upload them to show the world, tagging them with the you used ingredients. You can then search through those ingredient tags, finding inspiration for something to make with the ingredients you have to hand. As you'd expect, you can also do the usual social networking things, like follow people whose food you find interesting, and post comments and "likes" on pictures.

"Why do I need this?" you might ask. "I have Instagram and Twitter, Facebook and Foodspotting. Why do I need another app?" Well, the Platter team cleverly identified that in fact none of these apps are exactly what you need if you're a home cook looking to show off. Instagram has plenty of food pics, but lacks the ingredient tagging feature. Twitter and Facebook are more general purpose. Foodspotting is designed around the idea of taking pictures of food when eating out, not for home cooking. Platter is complementary to these services.

To underscore this, it has (as you'd probably expect) the ability to cross-post pictures to Facebook and Twitter. These cross-posts are in the form of links to Platter's attractive web interface (self-promotion alert: that's my own Platter page), from where you can drill down into individual pictures. This web view feature is already fuller-featured than Instagram's pared-down approach, as you can navigate from users to pictures and back again, and the Platter team are planning on expanding this further in the future.

Technically, Platter works pretty well. It's been developed by a small team of five people (for both iOS and Android versions) alongside their day jobs, and early on there were some rough edges that betrayed the app's homespun origins -- the occasional layout glitch or failed post. Subsequent patches have mostly fixed the problems. There's still the odd interface quirk -- I didn't find it particularly easy to navigate through the app at first, and sometimes tap targets seem to be frustratingly unresponsive -- but nothing too annoying. I couldn't test the Android version, but I must at least note that it has one -- so your Android-toting friends aren't left out in the cold.

There are some usability decisions that are quite refreshing, too. There's no fancy/hackneyed (delete according to your biases) photo filters, for one thing; if you're suffering from Instagram Fatigue you may find this a relief. The app also doesn't enforce a trendy square crop on photos; when users view your images, they'll see the aspect ratio you took them in, giving you the flexibility to compose shots as you see fit. However, note that the layouts in-app often use square thumbnails, which can result in some weird cropping. Of course, the app can import pictures from the Camera Roll as well as take them live, so if you'd prefer you can use any app already on your camera to shoot, crop, and post-process images. Image compositing app Diptic seems to be a particularly popular choice.

Platter's approach to tagging us also interesting. Unlike Twitter or Instagram's free-form approach, the ingredient tags are set by the system, and you can't add to them yourself; this promotes a clean hierarchy of tags that isn't littered with duplicates or misspellings. However, so far, the tag names are resolutely Brit speak rather than American orientated; so it's "coriander" and not "cilantro", "aubergine" rather than "eggplant", "courgette" over "zucchini". My Colonial cousins may find this jarring. Update: a full complement of US-style food words have now been added to Platter's ingredient tags.

As for the actual content, the food, I've definitely found Platter to be inspirational. Not only on a "what can I make with this level" but also simply from a presentation point of view. And it's particularly good to know, when looking through pictures, that these are all shot at home in an amateur's kitchen. Looking at professional dishes on Foodspotting inspires me to eat; looking at amateur dishes in Platter inspires me to cook.

Platter is also building a fun community. The developers of the app are all very active on the network, commenting on dishes and running competitions. There's a sub-type of user who delights in naming their dishes with the most groan-inducing puns you can imagine, such as my personal best, "steaks on a p(l)an(e)".

Chatting with Platter

I spoke with Will Hodson, director of Platter, about the future plans for the app.

How did the idea for Platter come about?

"Platter occurred to me as I developed another project with Channel 4's 4iP scheme. They were looking for ideas that could drill down into people's food habits; I thought of something like food Twitter... but didn't want to share it with a media giant!"

What sort of team put Platter together? Is this a full time thing, a sideline gig, or what? How many of you are there, what are your backgrounds, and how long did it take?

"Platter was co-founded by me and four developers. Most of us are fairly recent Cambridge graduates, working in software and programming. I met these guys as a client for another job, was struck by their competence, and we all got on."

How do you feel the launch has gone? Are you finding a good audience?

"Our press coverage is a testament to the appeal of the concept. We've been featured or recommended in all UK broadsheets as well as Evening Standard and Stylist. ABC News in the US recently named us as the number two app for food photos in the world (just behind Instagram).

"Launch has gone well. I wanted to give this a serious food-loving hardcore and we have it. Our featured cooks read like a who's who of British food blogging: we have two of MSN's Most Influential Foodies on board, a Masterchef Finalist and most of London's top bloggers."

Some of the food bloggers Will mentioned include Food Urchin, Gin and Crumpets, Meemalee and Leluu. I forgive him for not mentioning my own sparsely-updated food blog, Objection: Salad!, which has won precisely zero awards from MSN's Most Influential Foodies. It must have slipped his mind.

What are your immediate plans for the app? New features? US localisation? Bugfixes?

"We are in discussions with investors now. There are big plans afoot. First, expanding tags to cover dishes' influences as well as their ingredients. So if my dish inspires you to try something similar, you can tag my influence in your photo. This is almost a new currency of approval in social media. It also means communities can form around cookbooks and suppliers, taking Platter way beyond Instagram into food-specific functionality. Second, we'll open up our website for logged-in use. It will also enable curation of one's favourite dishes. And third, we'll look to put down some roots in the States.

"Finally, we are looking into Instagram integration, via a similar solution to that used by Foodspotting -- users post pictures to their Instragram feed with a special hashtag, and we pick that up and re-post the picture to Platter."

You lead on both iOS and Android at once. That's somewhat unusual. Was that tricky to manage? Did it definitely bring in more users than if you'd led with one platform at a time?

"Android was fine to develop for because our Android guy has been fantastic. Marketing it has been a nightmare however. If you type in Platter on Google Play, it assumes you mean 'Plate'. So it's tricky to find our app. You'd expect better from Google. We're still committed to the Android App but most users are on iPhone."

Anything else you'd like to say to our readers?

"We've got this far with no budget and limited time, yet we've still established Platter as a great place for food photos. As we push out to embrace more home cooks making fantastic dishes around the world, Platter will become the place you go to decide what to eat."

I can't say any more than that, really. One of the privileges of writing for TUAW is being able to help smaller apps find a wider audience. I've really enjoyed Platter in the six or so weeks I've been using it, and I wish it every success for the future.

You can download Platter for iPhone for free from the App Store.