2014-06-30

Co.Labs

Finally, A Social Network That Won't Turn Us Into Addicts—But How Will It Thrive?

How a small team's social network passion project is trying to redefine web communities



Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and the rest of our social networks have trained us to respond to notifications like Pavlovian dogs. So we were surprised to hear Brian Bailey, creator of a new social network called Uncommon, isn't out to get you addicted.

"Basically [we’re] rejecting a lot of the techniques that we know do work in terms of getting people to click as much as possible, read as much as possible, stay as much as possible," says Bailey. But can you actually build a network that way?

"I think all of us involved do feel like there's plenty of room for something very different in the approach of how communities are done online," says Bailey. He thinks the drug-like traits of these networks owes mostly to their mid-2000s vintage.

"There were so many different techniques at that time: how to create engagement, how to drive pageviews, how to increase clicks, how to do all these different things," he says.
"All things that are designed to get people to spend as much time as possible on the site, primarily to see as many ads as possible. "

In Bailey’s view, this has resulted in an erroneous conflation between the language of social media and the language of community. Now every company worth its salt has a social media strategy, claiming a desire to foster community—when really all they want is an audience. Uncommon was built to create an online community more reflective of a real-world one, and not the kind that we’ve grown accustomed to through social media.

In about two weeks, Bailey hopes to open the site up to a small group of founding members who will try the site on for size and provide feedback before Uncommon opens to the public. Currently, the way it works is like this:

Like most social networks, you start with a profile. They'll be quite spare, and consist mostly of your favorite things—things you want to connect over and talk about. Anyone can click on one of their favorite things and see a list of other people who also like it—Bailey says that eventually, the Uncommon team hopes to use this as the basis to introduce people to one another.

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Pretty standard so far, right? Here's where Uncommon starts to change things up. Instead of notifications, users will find Stacks waiting for them when they sign in—postcards with announcements, notable contributions from other members, discussion prompts and the like.

"The goal is to make it a refreshing stop whether you visit each day or once a month. It’s also designed to be limited," says Bailey. "Though someone can certainly continue to explore the site, the suggestion will be that once you finish the stack, you're free to move on to other important things in your life. We like to say Uncommon is a trampoline, not a rabbit hole."

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Want to invite friends? Great. But carpetbombing your Gmail contacts with email invites is both annoying and contrary to Uncommon's ethos. Instead, Uncommon users will send a postcard. Uncommon is a subscription service—users pay $24 for a year—but every membership comes with a free year for you to give away to a friend to join. The blank postcard comes in the mail with your welcome note—every Uncommon user gets one of those—for you to send to whomever you wish.

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"It's a way to foster online community in a very unique, different way," says Bailey. "Could the online experience of this be as healthy and supportive to the people using it as possible, even if it's kind of a detriment to its broad appeal or long-term success?"

It’s a tight wire act that sounds impossible, but Bailey doesn’t seem to mind. Uncommon is a passion project; Bailey and his team have all been working on it in their spare time since 2012. He regularly states that Uncommon’s ideal of community comes first—the design and the business end of things can be sorted out later. Because of that, the Uncommon team is asking all sorts of questions that aren’t often asked in modern web development.

"One of the core things we talk about is, 'How can we design something that is wonderful whenever you visit it?" says Bailey. "No matter if you visit it once a day or once a month. How can it be a wonderful experience in both cases? And if you do visit once a month, how can we make it so you don't feel like you're behind or you missed out?"

Currently, Uncommon isn’t open to the public, nor has it taken its proper shape. Right now, it’s a loose collection of a small group of 100 founding members who have been writing and sharing things weekly. Or not. Bailey likens Uncommon to a front porch—come and go as you wish, have a great conversation while you’re here. No one really has to do anything.

Bailey is not expecting Uncommon to be huge or experience staggering exponential growth—but he does hope that the people who join are looking for the same thing: a slower web where people are the main attraction.

"It's always going to grow best by very personal storytelling from one person to another," says Bailey. That’s the sort of thing that he hopes will make Uncommon worth your while.

But don’t feel pressured to stay.




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6 Comments

  • I applaud the goals of Uncommon to create a healthy and supportive online experience.

    I do agree that this strategy is a detriment to broad appeal. By charging it is hard to scale a network quickly. And many people will never pay. I doubt VCs will be interested.

    In my experience working with entrepreneurs starting niche networks, Uncommon's success will depends keeping fees in line with expenses, in finding people passionate about narrow topics, and in sufficient funding to fan the flames with existing and new users. They cannot depend on users to do the last.

    I also suggest that a year is too long to give someone a free membership. When users are accustomed to getting something for free for a year, it is very hard to go back and charge. I suggest a much shorter free membership, with an autoresponder campaign to encourage moving to full membership. One of my sites offers a premium feature to pay after a trial period, for example.

    I wish them well.

  • I can't imagine what you'd base your comment on. The article says that the site isn't open yet. All that's visible in the article in a small portion of a profile, which I think looks very nice. But neither of us can comment on the site as a whole, and a tiny portion taken out of context isn't a good way to judge a site design. According to the article, the site won't be viewable for another two weeks, and then only to the founding members and in beta.

  • If it's not open to the public, then you don't go ahead and write an article about it to drive people to their site. My first thought when i saw the site was exactly the same as Bernardo's - unusable interface and a lot of unconnected and vague content. I saw a lot of apps and wanna-be social networks that started out from the same idea of making social networks more humane. So far, i have not seen any that came close to this, not even Uncommon, judging from what i have seen so far.