2013-07-19

Co.Labs

The Rise Of The Niche Social Network

Far from being a marketer’s worst nightmare, smaller, more focused networks are becoming places where people actually listen.



The option to share Instagram photos on Facebook and Twitter is both a blessing and a curse. When I want to share a photo that’s particularly special with my Facebook friends who aren’t on Instagram (i.e., my grandma), I can do so. When I want to share a photo that’s particularly witty on Twitter, I can do so. But when I see the same linked photos on Facebook and Twitter, and then again on Instagram, it drives me nuts. Especially if said photos are of my friend’s cat... and I like cats. In short: cross-platform integration has gone overboard and it’s led social giants to become one massive lump of blah.

Giant Social Networks: Where Intellect Goes to Die

On the big social sites, a person’s network is often so big that there’s no real sense of community. Chances are, in real life you consider yourself a member of many different communities within society: An animal lover, a UX designer, and a parent, for instance. Your online life should mirror your real life, which is not to say that everything must be kept separate, but you should feel connected to the people you’re surrounded by.

When your feeds are drenched in a constant stream of mixed messages, it’s overwhelming. Because of the sheer number of posts, those that actually have any substance or meaning are lost in the undertow. As a marketer, Facebook and Twitter have become necessary components of my job, and they’re still effective. But as a human, I want something that’s a little more human. I crave the interaction and engagement that the Internet was built to foster. It’s no secret that the web gives us the infinite power to connect, so why are we wasting it updating each other about the minute details of our day?

The most frustrating part of the whole social giant oversaturation thing is that young people are typifying the generalized negative qualities of our generation. It’s said that we share every detail of our lives merely because we have the technology at our fingertips; but much like the boy who cried wolf, any time an action is constantly repeated, it becomes meaningless. Maybe I’m just “friends” with dull people, but reading my feed provides no insight because it’s so routine and predictable. In a social sense, I’m not learning or growing as an online being anymore.

But I think there’s an antidote. Niche social networks, that were built for specific, narrowed-down purposes allow for focus, community, and meaning to be restored to the online world. Sites and apps like Quora, Quibb, Path, Potluck, and even Medium present themselves as forums for like-minded individuals to connect with each other, to form new communities, and to bring meaning and argument (the non-troll kind) back to digital spaces. With a powerful zap of what feels like magic, new niche sites are bringing intelligence back to the social network. They’re a breath of fresh air in an online world that’s cluttered with social smog.

How Niche Networks are Bringing Community (and Meaning and Insight) Back

When Quora went public in 2010, it set the stage for hyper-focused social networking by implementing a single purpose: Q&As. The smart person’s Yahoo Answers, Quora quickly grew to over 500,000 users in its first year. With the site’s extensive division of categories, Quora is an easy place to tap into a specific, but vast community. In my work life, Quora has proven to be an invaluable source of inspiration and discovery. There are countless articles about social media, marketing, best practices, and digital culture. Quora is a magical combination of curiosity, indulgence (you can talk about yourself with a specific purpose), and intelligence. It allows you to add value to a larger conversation with people who are interested in the same topics as you. Win win.

Similarly, Quibb and Potluck offer a sense of community through their simple purposes of link sharing. While Quibb is a selective environment for work-related news and Potluck is more an “everyone’s invited” type platform, both sites are excellent resources for finding content that will be relevant to you, as you choose who to follow and what conversations to join. Not unlike Quora’s capabilities, Quibb and Potluck let you jump into a digital community and draw insights from what others have to say. These sites keep you up on relevant industry and cultural debates and they’ll actually engage you as they do so.

Path is another new social network of note. Despite its initial prompt that asks you integrate your Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and Instagram accounts (sigh), the difference here, the money-maker if you will, is that Path limits the number of friends you can add. Ultimately, Path creates a space for much more personal connections and interactions. It prompts you to invite your family and close friends, but not that random person you met years ago. Essentially a microcosm of social networks, Path does its job of connecting you (and even lets you overshare), but only a small circle of people you care about will be able to see your updates.

Finally, there’s the Evan Williams-spawned Medium: A beacon of light in the Internet of nothingness. Medium has no “follow” or “friend” functions; as a reader, the only actionable buttons are for commenting on and recommending posts. Though there isn’t too much interaction happening on Medium, the experience of using it takes my mind far past any place it could go by skimming my newsfeed. The site is well-organized and places value on curiosity and discovery. It connects you to a large web of opinionated, thought-provoking writers who you can engage with and whose words may inspire you.

Can Smaller Networks Keep Up?

The question now is whether or not these networks can survive among the giant networks, but still avoid becoming part of the oversaturation themselves. Better yet, do they even want to “keep up” and try to compete with traditional social networks?

Despite the fatigue that’s felt at the hands of social media giants, there are certain elements of the fluid web we can and should use to our advantage. For starters, Medium is linked to Twitter (and Quibb uses a Twitter integration to log in), so when you want to share something, the default prompt is to share on Twitter. Sure, it’s another fleeting tweet, but at least there’s substance to it. I’d much rather be prompted to read an interesting story than see a complaint about the weather. That said, I think the Medium + Twitter relationship may be the one exception to the “keep traditional networks and niche networks separate” rule.

If you’re a business owner or entrepreneur and you’re worried your presence on niche networks won’t reach a large audience: don’t. That’s not what these networks are geared toward. Why share niche-specific information with your entire social following if the grand majority of them won’t care? That defeats the purpose of these networks existing. Directing your audience toward your presence on these sites will get them to see you as a thought leader in your industry. Maybe you’ll inspire the brightest ones to join the conversation.

Rishon is the marketing manager at Spinnakr, a new kind of analytics that takes action for you. She’d love to connect with you on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Thomas Leth-Olsen]