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Social networks for niches

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

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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.

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"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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