Recently Gowalla was bought by Facebook. I immediately said the user accounts would be merged, users would be forced to transfer to Facebook and Gowalla would be shut down. Turns out I was partially correct. Some people on Twitter were happy for the founders of Gowalla as they made some money selling out to Facebook but their users weren’t happy. This is a danger users face when considering investing time and effort into niche networks and platforms online.
There are more and more niche online social networks. Some of them will get in the way of the big boys and get crushed or swallowed others will thrive serving their niche. Twitter continues to insist it isn’t a social network, but some people definitely use it as one. I use Twitter to follow people who post interesting information, stay on top of the news, and keep an eye on interesting companies and ideas. An online social network is any website where users post a profile, share information, and build communities around the website. This definition includes Twitter, all the old school bulletin board services, even some blogs or blog networks.
Twitter is still the home of the digerati or at least people who fancy themselves important and influential online. Google+ went after these people hard, but I don’t see the value in joining yet another general online social network. Obviously Google wants the personal data of the millions and millions of users of Facebook and Twitter, so they can sell it to advertisers. Catering to advertisers not end users is how Google makes their money. It isn’t enough that the digerati join Google+, cross-posting is also not enough. Google needs all the digerati’s fans and followers to join Google+ and for everyone to cease cross-posting entirely. Google has continued to integrate Google+ more deeply with their other online properties, but people like my mom don’t want to join another online social network, certainly not one that offers them nothing Facebook isn’t already giving them.
This post isn’t about the behemoths of the online world. It’s about the growing number of niche online social networks that I keep getting invited to join by Internet keeners on Twitter. In order for a niche online social network to have a chance of success it has to offer a method to share relevant information easily even uniquely combined with increasing the likelihood of finding like-minded people over and above what is currently being offered by Facebook. Notice I said Facebook not Google+, Twitter, MySpace, or any other social network. Facebook is winning and how you differentiate your site from Facebook is what matters most to advertisers and endusers.
The most recent niche social network I’ve joined is Fitocracy. It makes it easy to share your workouts. Like Gowalla and Foursquare you earn points and badges for checking in and doing stuff. It is targeted at people who regularly go to the gym, or perform some other form of exercise so it is easy to find like-minded people. I think it has a chance to succeed and advertisers such as Nike or any other company that wants to target physically fit folks will be interested in selling to their users. They need an iPhone app. Notice I said iPhone not Android or smart phone. iPhone users spend more money, it is still seen as more fashionable, and Apple is definitely the company to beat in mobile.
Perversely another niche online social network I’ve joined because of people I follow on Twitter is Untappd. It too allows you to check in and earn badges. It now has a decent iPhone app. But unlike Fitocracy I’m not sure it will be a longterm success. Beer drinkers are definitely subjected to a lot of advertising, however Untappd is targeted at craft beer lovers, even beer snobs. They don’t want to see another Bud Light tv spot. They are not going to drink Bud Light to get a free t-shirt. It is definitely a niche online social network, though profiles are currently not a major component. It relies on APIs to get venue information and I’ve found it regularly does not have the establishment I am frequenting. It relies on end users to enter the beer brands, it allows you to cross post to Twitter and Facebook which is a necessary feature of any niche network. Fitocracy like LinkedIn offers a premium account level. Untappd since it focuses exclusively on mobile users has little opportunity (screen space) to show advertisements and their core users will probably be hostile if the Nikes and Reeboks of their industry started advertising heavily. Short of selling user information on the relative down low, I’m not sure how Untappd will make money.
Tumblr is popular due to how easy it makes it to repost something posted by another user of Tumblr. Some thought Pinterest was a Tumblr clone but Pinterest is a platform for sharing, which is what Tumblr is I suppose, but Pinterest is even more niche and focussed exclusively on pictures. Both sites are trying to make sharing easier than Facebook and since most everything is public, finding pictures related to your interest is easier than on Facebook. Unfortunately, especially for Tumblr, people use their service to share information for which they don’t hold the intellectual property rights. Tumblr users don’t write much text, nor are the images they love to share keyword rich, so Tumblogs don’t do that well in search engines for either image or text searches, but Tumblr has continued to grow. Growth is primarily due to its ease of use and the community of extremely active posters that has formed.
WordPress is a much better platform for professional blogging or indeed writing and organizing large amounts of text. WordPress based sites have always done well in search engines. So called SEO experts have endeavored to tweak WordPress even more in this direction using plugins. This is why I continue to use and recommend WordPress for people who are interested in blogging and brand building.
I keep waiting for some big media company to go after Tumblr like they did YouTube and other video sharing websites. Google has already bought YouTube and Blogger so I can’t see them buying Tumblr. Facebook and Microsoft are probably also out, Apple has thrown its support behind Twitter and has various fledgling online social networks such as Ping and the iPhone gaming one.
Pinterest because it has gained so much traction with crafters may continue to flourish as a niche online social network, catering to certain groups of people, though it can be used to share a picture of anything, plus a link to the original source. Pinterest may eventually have to go the route of Ning and charge for the communities they host, or they will have to go the route of WordPress.com and sell advertising a lot more intrusively ruining the minimalism so beloved by their community.
Apple just like Google is probably scheming how they can get a bigger piece of the online social network pie. Both are heavily invested in mobile. Google is no longer just a software company having bought Motorolla’s handset division. The other big niche targeted by online social networks that is both competitive and lucrative is gamers. Playstation and Xbox have there own networks for their users. I see cross-postings from them by friends to Facebook. Steam is one I actually belong to but all of these only deal with a subset of games and gamers. Other game publishers have their own quasi social networks like Battle.net. There are innumerable blogs, websites, and forums devoted to gaming online. Why isn’t there one niche network targeting gamers ala Fitocracy or Untappd?
Gamers especially online gamers are not always nice people, they don’t all get along, they are not positive and optimistic like the folks I’ve encountered on Fitocracy and Untappd. Some of them get their jollies killing the online characters of random strangers. See the South Park episode on World of Warcraft for further insight into the anti-social nature of online gaming or even the episode of Big Bang Theory featuring Age of Conan. Online gamers engage in platform wars, personal vendettas, slander, ad hominem personal attacks, etc. They are not one big happy family.
Another issue long affecting the gaming industry is piracy. On one hand, since the days of Wads and DOOM, video game companies have encouraged user created content and building communities around a product/game/franchise. But for even longer video game companies have lamented how much money they have lost due to intellectual property theft in the form of software piracy. Most forums and gaming websites discourage even ban users who facilitate piracy. I never was a big software pirate myself, mostly growing up before the world wide web was created. I also never got into stealing MP3s or downloading movies through peer sharing services. But taking the high ground isn’t always the happiest or most profitable route available to an individual.
Music is another industry that has claimed to be even more negatively affected by online piracy than video games and it is also happens to be magnet for niche online social networks: Ping, Last.fm, Spotify, etc. Music fans are less combative than video game fans and probably more prone to writing long pieces of text. Gamers mainly share images and video clips, whereas music fans share articles in addition to audio and video clips. Maybe the fact that major record labels control such a high concentration ratio of the industry makes it more attractive to folks thinking of creating niche online social networks, but given a recent post on online licensing agreements I doubt that.
Gamers being tech savvy have always taken advantage of the latest technology available: BBSs, usenet, mailing lists, and blogs to share information and meet like-minded people online. Maybe they are too tech-savvy for a one size fits all solution. Maybe video gamers don’t need or want a niche online social network, but I can’t help but think any network that made sharing pirated games easier would not be well regarded by the industry and advertisers.
What about non-video gamers? I’ve spent way too much time reading about tabletop games online. Lately I’ve seen some postings that imply folks are working on a niche online social network targeting tabletop gamers. These folks need to read this post and make sure their website makes it easier to share information related to the hobby than is currently provided by Facebook, WordPress or even Tumblr. Several people have formed Facebook Groups related to Warhammer 40,000, I’m a member of two. This is a viable option rather than creating and embracing a dedicated niche social network. I still prefer following blogs. I also frequent a couple of forums, but I now get information from these Facebook Groups in my sidebar when I log into Facebook.
It is unlikely Facebook, Apple, Google, or Microsoft will disappear. Now Research In Motion (Blackberry), that is a company and platform that is in some trouble. Amazon is considered the fifth major Internet platform company, but in the online networking space there are still some new players targeting niche markets and their innovation will be copied or even acquired by the bigger established players online. This is an interesting space to continue to watch while iTunes Match does its uploading.
Pinterest according to VentureBeat and HitWise has quietly become one of the top 10 social networks in North America. Even more interesting and echoing what I’ve said earlier about the site and my sister’s love of it:
The site is most popular with females and arts and crafts enthusiasts between the ages of 25 and 44, and its user base is anything but typical — at least for a social network.
So advertisers looking to target women particularly those who like arts and crafts but also home decor and fashion have a new social network to advertise on and partner with in creative ways to sell their own products and services.
Here is another post with a more active discussion about Tumblr and it’s clones of which, some people consider Pinterest to be one.
Pinterest continues getting more and more press, apparently people who are less observant than myself have noticed that if you make it into the Top 10 most visited sites in a given category in the United States of America then obviously money is to be made. The irony is I’m not some big user of Pinterest, but my sister, my cousins, and some of their friends are. This shows how important it is when introducing or evaluating a product to get opinions by members of both sexes. Dudes may like Tumblr more because of it’s minimalism or the fact that it is easy to find pictures of hot chicks, but women are more interested in fashion, home decor, and arts and crafts. Both Tumblr and Pinterest have no shortage of cute. Always bet on cute.
Pinterest continues to be the talk of the blogosphere or the Twitterverse, apparently what Pinterest does is Social Content Curation and it’s the Next Big Thing.
I knew people were working on a social network targeting gamers. Apple is planing to more tightly integrate their social games platform with Mac OS X Mountain Lion, but considering I know zero people who use it, I think the console manufacturers and their networks: PSN, Xbox Live, even Steam already have a pretty solid user base, but Raptr is trying to be the social network for hardcore gamers.
I know a lot of gamers and I don’t know any who invited me to join Raptr, but I have Steam friends and I literally have one Steam enabled game I play, I’m just not so into online multiplayer, I prefer turn based strategy games and actually do a lot of my gaming on the iPhone, not my PC or a console. It is easy to fit in 15 minutes of gaming, it is hard to fit in 1.5 hours a day (or more).
Update April 10th 2013
Niche social networks continue to get a lot of press, probably because Goodreads was purchased by Amazon, which is still a bit odd to me as I remember when Amazon changed their API Terms of Service (again) and Goodreads lost a whole bunch of book covers… I wonder if any of the other niche social networks I use will be gobbled up. I definitely spend more time on niche social networks than I do on Facebook. Facebook today is just a big mess of stuff I’m not really interest in posted by people I never see. Twitter is far superior, I can subscribe to just the accounts I want, and organize the tweets into groups. I actually spend more time on Pinterest than I do on Facebook and I’m a guy.
Others continue to write about the appeal of niche social networks contrasted presumably with the lack of appeal Facebook has with people who don’t want to see an unending stream of pictures of kids, dogs, and cats sprinkled with ads. Not to mention people who want to maintain some semblance of privacy or separation between their private and professional lives.
Update July 31st 2013
Today I got an ad filled newsletter from Fitocracy. They continue to market some sort of premium lifetime membership, but they’ve also resorted to sending unwanted and unasked for emails. It had a recipe for cookies, I think a lot of Fitocracy users must be women. You’d think a workout social network would be more macho, but the people I follow who actually still check in are almost all women. I often forget to check in. Yesterday I went to the gym, still haven’t checked in.
I like Fitocracy, absolutely hate their iPhone app. I uninstalled it. I now follow a number of bloggers and tweeters because of Fitocracy. Instagram and Pinterest seem to have a lot of fitness type people, as does Tumblr. Facebook is still the largest network, fitness people ask me to ‘like’ them on Facebook all the time. I hope Fitocracy survives but there is so much competition and earning badges gets old after a while. It needs some sort of recommendation engine like Untappd or if you could win Addias shoes randomly, maybe they can partner with Klout to reach their influencers. It just isn’t a must check website. Twitter and Pinterest I check most every day, but every other social network I can easily do without. I listen to a lot of music, but I don’t always tell Last.fm. I go to the gym, I ride my bike, I don’t always tell Fitocracy. I do try to check most beers I drink into Untappd and all you get is badges, but they have a recommendation algorithm which I completely ignore, but my favourite feature of Untappd is it memorizes what beers I’ve tried. JEfit memorizes what exercises I do, I don’t need Fitocracy, it isn’t even that fun.