August 01, 2016 Feature

Trello Is the Future of Social Media

Aaron W. Brooks

Trello, Inc., is a rapidly growing company that provides cloud-based software for managing your projects. Although Trello is indeed a wonderful project management platform, it is rarely described as the powerful and dynamic social media website it really is. In my opinion, Trello even has the potential to replace Facebook as our “go-to” social app.

The company’s core product, Trello.com, more than doubled its users during the 18 months through October 2015, when it reached 10 million total users. The company has confirmed nearly 2 million of those were monthly active users. This may seem small compared to Pinterest’s 100 million monthly active users (not to mention Facebook’s 1.55 billion monthly active users). However, if you look closely, Trello appears to be on the verge of doing social media in a way that no other current app can touch.

What Is Trello?

Trello is commonly thought of as an online project management app. It was developed in 2011 by Fog Creek Software, a company already known at the time for the popular Stack Exchange network (which allows users to post and answer questions about various topics). On July 24, 2014, Trello was spun off as its own company.

Trello is based on a concept called “teams,” and you can create as many Trello Teams as you like. Teams can consist of only one member (you), or you can allow others to join one or more of your teams. Think of a Trello Team as the top-level categorization tool for all the other information inside the app.

Within each Trello Team, you create Trello Boards. Boards are modeled after a concept known as “Kanban” that was originally developed by Toyota in the 1940s to facilitate just-in-time manufacturing. Toyota’s work in this area has become a core foundation for the modern concept of “lean,” which is quickly gaining acceptance in many service industries (including “lean law”). Trello Boards are meant roughly to replicate a physical corkboard, with thumbtacks and paper note cards.

Each Trello Board consists of Trello Lists and Trello Cards. A Trello List is essentially a column on the board that can hold Trello Cards, and each list can be labeled with any useful title. A common way to organize a Trello Board is to create a series of lists named as follows: Next, Doing, Delegated, Waiting, and Done.

To the Trello Lists, you add Trello Cards. Trello Cards are the heart of the app, and the functionality they offer is rapidly evolving as development continues. For example, Trello Cards can contain due dates, text comments, checklists, file attachments, images, and links to other places.

Trello Boards and Trello Cards work together in a manner that allows people to organize and sort information in a very intuitive and visual way. Any card can be dragged and dropped onto any list and thus fluidly moved around the board. So, following the example above, if you were to create separate cards for each of your open projects, you might put some of those cards in the “Next” list, some in the “Doing” list, some in the “Delegated” list, and so on. You could then move the cards around the board as your projects progress, using the board as a visual status dashboard for them all.

I have previously recorded a video for the Illinois State Bar Association’s YouTube channel to demonstrate Trello’s basic functionality in a little under five minutes. You can view it at bit.ly/1PBkmJT or just Google “brooks trello isba” to see that and some of my other work in this area.

Trello’s Emergence as a Social Networking Engine

At some point, Trello’s rapidly growing user base began taking advantage of the nascent social features embedded within the app (more on those later). Even Trello seems initially to have been caught off guard by this trend. For example, in a blog post dated June 9, 2014, the company wrote: “Recently we noticed a bunch of Twitter buzz about some hot Trello boards. Checking out some stats on Google Analytics, we observed that most of the top viewed public Trello boards are businesses using Trello to publicly roadmap their products” (tinyurl.com/hksof23).

Other software development companies were creating public Trello Teams and Trello Boards upon which they were inviting their own users to post comments or suggest ideas, and the strategy was taking off in a big way. Following up on that discovery, in October 2015 Trello began actively promoting the practice by integrating Twitter functionality directly into its business-class offering, allowing tweets to be embedded directly within Trello Cards (tinyurl.com/jhxywog).

Even so, integrating with other popular social networking engines doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of Trello’s potential as a direct social network itself. As described below, Trello has the underpinnings and architecture to directly and unilaterally become one of the most useful social networks ever created.

The Key Social Networking Features of Trello Teams and Boards

Remember that Trello is organized into the following basic hierarchy: Teams that contain boards, and then boards that contain lists and cards. Importantly for our current subject, note that teams and boards have adjustable privacy settings that create powerful social dynamics.

Public and semi-public teams and boards. A Trello Team may, at any time, be set either as private or public. If the team is set as private, it will not be indexed by search engines, nor will it be visible to anyone who has not been added to the team. Private Trello Teams are essentially secure workspaces within which a select group of people can set up and collaborate on projects. However, if a team is set as public, it can be seen by anyone, and its contents will be indexed and searchable through Google, Bing, and any other search engine.

Similarly, a Trello Board’s privacy settings also can be adjusted at any time. A board can be set as private (meaning it is only visible to the creator and other Trello users who are specifically added to that board), team-visible (meaning it is only visible to members of the team within which it resides), or public (meaning, of course, that it is visible to anyone and will be indexed and searchable through public search engines).

Subscriptions and user tags. Trello has a subscription feature built into its boards and cards. Thus, if (through the various privacy settings described above) you have access to any particular board, the board’s owner has the option to allow you to subscribe to that board, or any of its individual cards. By doing this, you will receive a notification any time activity occurs on the boards and cards to which you are subscribed.

In addition to subscriptions, any Trello user has the ability to tag another Trello user in the comment field of any card. Tagging a Trello user generates an automatic notification to him or her indicating he or she has been tagged, and the notification includes a link directly to the applicable card where the discussion is taking place. Generally, you must know the Trello username of the person you wish to tag. However, each comment on a Trello Card features a “reply” button that automatically creates a new comment on the same card with the prior commenter automatically tagged. Thus, card comments and replies easily facilitate social discussions about the subject of the card between Trello users who are not personally acquainted. The notifications described in this section show up in a global notification feed, which is the beginnings of a “killer application” that I believe justifies the premise of this article as I describe below.

Trello activity logs. Trello activity logs are where the social networking really starts to happen. Every board to which you have access (again, through the various privacy settings described above) provides a chronological list of the activity that has taken place on that board. The activity log operates in a similar manner to that of any other social media newsfeed and will contain records of card movements, comments on cards, and other notations about the many ways people might interact with a card or board.

Additionally, Trello has the beginnings of a master newsfeed for your entire Trello account, in the form of a “notifications” list (the aforementioned beginnings of a “killer application”). The notifications list contains a unified record of: cards within which you are tagged; activity on entire boards to which you are subscribed; and activity upon any individual cards to which you are subscribed. Trello’s notifications list has the potential to be more powerful and informative than the Facebook or Pinterest newsfeeds, as Trello’s basic structure is more organized, interactive, dynamic, and permanently and collectively organized than any other social platform.

Trello card voting. Any board can be set up to allow other Trello users to “vote” on any specific card on the board. This particular feature may be the most important element that propagated the use of Trello as a public road-mapping tool for software development projects. It allows teams to create boards and cards that contain ideas for a product or project in various stages of development, and then gauge the reaction from its user base. Clearly, cards with high vote counts will be taken more seriously as a potential feature in future product releases. However, the card voting feature could easily evolve as a competitor to the ubiquitous Facebook “like” button.

Pulling It All Together

If my premise is correct, we will begin seeing widespread use of public teams, boards, and cards as stand-alone social networking platforms. Think of a public Trello Board as something equivalent to a page on Facebook: Essentially it is just another easy-to-publish mini-website that revolves around a particular interest, product, or service. Subscribing to this public board would be the equivalent of “liking” a page on Facebook. The card comments, votes, tags, and activity log for that board would then naturally cause a similar social interactive dynamic that can be filtered locally by reviewing the activity log for that specific board, or globally through the “notifications” list (again, the aforementioned beginnings of a “killer application”).

A few things need to happen in order to bring about this revolution (and I apologize if they have already taken root beyond my notice):

First, public Trello Boards need to be easier to find. Currently, the most effective way I have found to search them out is through a Google query such as the following: “[insert desired topic] site:trello.com/b/”. For example, Google this phrase exactly as written: “Chicago site:trello.com/b/”. Your search results are likely to contain public boards containing detailed organizational strategies and information relating to things like restaurants and recreational activities in and about the city. Similarly, a search for “Fallout 4 site:trello.com/b/” is likely to lead you to excellently organized boards about video games. You may then subscribe to those boards and receive activity updates in your “notifications” list (again “killer application”) or simply use them as a reference guide for any subject where you appreciate the manner in which another person has it arranged.

Second, there needs to be a way to display publicly the number of subscribers on each public board and provide some basic de-identified back-office demographics about these subscribers for public board owners. This will allow Trello Boards to be ranked and monetized and will provide significant creative feedback that is likely to motivate the Trello user base to create interesting boards and card content.

Third, there needs to be a way to organize and sort the public Trello Boards to which one has subscribed. Currently Trello allows any board to be “starred” to one’s Trello home page, and those boards generally can be sorted in a drag-and-drop fashion. However, if used as the public board aggregator I hope it will become, this will just end up creating a singular, long list of starred boards. The Trello home page would be much more useful if it included the ability for us each to categorize, file, and search all our starred and subscribed boards.

Fourth, public Trello Boards should include an option for the owner to name them with intuitive and easy-to-remember subdomains. For example, a public board about “Acme, Inc.,” products should be able to claim the subdomain “Trello.com/acme” if nobody has already claimed it.

Fifth, the Trello “notifications” list and board activity logs need some enhancements to make them more visually appealing and interactive—and a more prominent feature of the Trello site in general. In my mind, these features should be front and center in the same way Facebook and Pinterest present their own newsfeeds, perhaps with the actual, personally addressed notifications placed alongside the main feed somewhere.

Sixth, the Trello Card comments and replies need to be better organized in a way that allows users to filter out comments that are unrelated to a particular comment/reply thread. Currently, the comments on a card simply stack on one another in chronological order, and it is not entirely intuitive to see which comments are part of any particular discussion thread.

And finally, there needs to be a Trello, Inc., IPO as soon as possible. I think this company is most certainly onto something here, and I’d love to own some small stake in what this might become.

Aaron W. Brooks

Aaron W. Brooks is a member of the firm Holmstrom & Kennedy, P.C., in Rockford, Illinois. His practice focuses on technology-based transactions and licensing, trademarks, copyrights, and privacy law. A version of this article previously appeared in the Illinois State Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Technology Newsletter, November 2015 (23:2).