Social networks for niches

Focused niche social networks give rise to defined online communities. Even giant Facebook is taking notice.

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    In niche social networks, members can post projects, make friends, join groups, and interact around a focused subject. Hypothetically, users can do the same on Facebook.
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Though Facebook has won over a widely promulgated 500 million active members, Kay Gardiner is unimpressed. Frankly, she thinks the social network is clunky and disconcerting.

The busy Manhattan-based writer and attorney isn't interested in playing games, "poking," or posting status updates. She doesn't want to reveal personal information to faux friends nor look at photos of casual acquaintances on vacation.

"It doesn't seem useful to me on a personal level," says Ms. Gardiner. "This stream-of-consciousness communication with other people is something I'm really not interested in."

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It's not that she isn't Internet savvy. In fact, Gardiner's quite the opposite: In 2003, she and a friend started a knitting blog that spawned two books and celebrity status in the knitting world. She's also a member of niche social network Ravelry, a site for knitters and other fiber enthusiasts.

"Blogging is labor-intensive," she explains. "On Ravelry, you have this easy interface. It's so elegant. You search for a pattern or yarn and you get somebody's picture of it with personal comments. It's not statistical; it's very human."

As in most niche social networks, members of the free site can post projects, make friends, join groups, and otherwise interact around a focused subject.

"I know Ravelry doesn't really matter to the world that doesn't knit," admits Gardiner. "But Facebook should be more like Ravelry."

There is no doubt in anyone's mind – not even Gardiner's – that Facebook is powerful. Its numbers – users, minutes of users' time, revenue – speak volumes. But it's not for everyone.

On niche social networks, however – communities where users connect around specific topics – it's hard to argue that there's not a site for every hobby, profession, ethnicity, or state of being. The niche sites are appealing to Facebook devotees and critics alike for their specificity. Users get to build profiles, swap stories, ask for advice, and otherwise interact with people who share their interest. As an added bonus to privacy-concerned users like Gardiner, the niche platform deters oversharing of extraneous information – say, family photos and random rants – because participation revolves around one subject.

For home cooks, there is Allrecipes; for intrepid travelers, CouchSurfing.org. There are social networks for figure skaters, soccer fans, stamp collectors, newlyweds, gays and lesbians, senior citizens, plus thousands of others. Niche networks have big numbers, too: More than 338,000 registered users have logged on to Ravelry in the past month, and homemade craft community Etsy has gained 278,208 new members in the same period.

Ning, a build-your-own social network platform with 70,000 paying customers and more than 74 million unique visitors per month across its sites, demonstrates the formidable marketing potential of niche sites. Individuals and companies use Ning to promote their brand in a place where people are apt to participate around it.

"It's not a replacement, but actually an adjunct to all of the other social tools out there: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter," says Anne Driscoll, Ning's vice president of business operations. "You can be on Facebook promoting your idea or organization, but you can also give the people who are ­really, truly passionate about a destination a place where they can continue that conversation in a more brand-first environment."

Robin Carey, chief executive officer of Social Media Today, builds online social communities for corporate customers. She says the niche sites can be valuable not only for the companies behind the sites, but also for the visitors.

"These sites are one-stop shopping around an area of interest, but also an opportunity to do personal brand-building," she says. "Users can network with other people in their field."

Gardiner, for example, uploads her knitting projects onto Ravelry. Ideally, her friends view the work, then visit her blog, and, eventually, buy one of her books.

Of course, business aside, niche social networks draw members for recreational, even psychological, reasons.

"There are going to be situations in people's lives, interests, that are just too specialized for a huge community like Facebook," says Debra Aho Williamson, senior analyst at eMarketer, an Internet market research company. "There will always be smaller communities that will cater to those interests."

When Ms. Williamson was a new mom, she frequented BabyCenter to connect with other parents.

"Being a new mom is such a tumultuous time in someone's life, that having a community of friends that you can turn to is important," she says. "A larger network like Facebook would be more challenged to offer that sort of thing."

Not that the seemingly all-powerful social network isn't trying. In early October, Facebook made a move to adopt niche qualities via their new "Groups" feature.

Now only members can see participation within a group – photos posted, for example. The company hopes to get more participation from users now that they have more control over their network.

"Facebook is actually making a more concerted effort to tell its members that 'yes, we are very large and you may have thousands of friends, but you don't necessarily have to communicate the same message to thousands of friends,' " Williamson explains. "It's working to give people options to communicate in smaller niches."

Will Facebook-hesitant people come around now that the large network has made the change?

Gardiner does actually have a Facebook account, but she rarely uses it. She says she has about 700 friend requests, probably many of them from her blog readers or Ravelry friends, that she's uncomfortable accepting.

"I find it sad to just ignore them," she says half seriously. Still, she doesn't want to share personal information with the people who know her only as a knitter. "I edit what I want to show the Internet world."

Although Gardiner says that Facebook will never replace her knitting sites, she might use it to share photos with family who live far away. "If I could have a group that was just my family, and show a roll of pictures only to them, I would," she says.

But, she adds, she can already do that using Apple's MobileMe Gallery, a photo-sharing software, though without Facebook's social features.

In the end, the only way she'll really make the full transition to Facebook is if the site "were more focused." In other words, more like a niche social network.

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