Facebook has always been bad at building communities outside of your existing friends and family. It’s an online tool to build and maintain your existing community of relations.
In fact, social networks in general have been bad at bringing together people with a shared interest to create new communities. Whereas forums have always been particularly good at it. Look at Mumsnet, The Student Room and Gamespot for some incredibly successful examples of forums used to build powerful, long-lasting communities.
Now is the time to revisit what I believe is the greatest use of the internet: online community sites and their evolution into niche social networks.
The resurrection of the niche community
Despite the attention the big social networks have been receiving in recent years, community forums have remained popular and they’re evolving, adopting more ‘social network’ like features. There are hundreds of thousands, probably millions of these sites that have a combined audience comparable to Facebook.
Perhaps online communities have been overlooked slightly in recent years because they are so niche. You would only visit these forums if you had a particularly strong interest, and it’s this extreme and shared interest that unites people within them.
A fantastic example is the Transformer toys collector websites like TFormers and Seibertron. Why would you know about these if you weren’t interested in Transformers? You wouldn’t. These sites are insanely popular and extremely resilient because of their community bond. For every interest there is an online community to accommodate, be it for films, fishing, cooking and so on. They live and grow every day even if you know nothing about them.
I run a small local site called Love Clapham that brings together my local community online. During 2011’s London riots, where Clapham Junction became centre of attention, Love Clapham’s community played a pivotal role as residents confirmed to one another what was and wasn’t actually happening. Almost all local communities now have an online community site to accommodate. They’re incredibly powerful within each area. Search for the one in your area to see for yourself.
Back in the late 90′s early 00′s I ran a number of sites for pop artists and TV shows which were particularly good at bringing people together to chat about common interests. Building friendships and even marriages(!) that last to this day. I’m followed on Twitter and still chat online with many people I met on these forums but have never actually met – over a decade later. I’ve always been fascinated by this use of online and the untouchable strength of community.
Will community behaviour ever follow the technology?
Social networks are a natural progression from forums – forums 2.0! After all, much of the functionality is similar, only much better (posting images, messaging, discussions etc). Yet the community behaviour never followed the technology. So I recently discovered a games social network called Playfire with great interest.
Playfire is a new, currently limited but quickly developing social network that brings video game players together, cleverly linking to games consoles to display your game play activity from the Xbox 360 and PS3. As a video gamer this is exciting and I’ve already been using it in similar ways to how I would use a forum (e.g. asking the collective community questions). The big games websites Gamespot and IGN both have communities built around forums that have existed for over ten years and they’re both integrating more and more social network like features too.
Zeebox, a new iPad app and website built as a companion to broadcast TV demonstrates similar characteristics by bringing people together who like shows in real time to chat about them. This uses Twitter to form the community interaction. Twitter is particularly interesting because it can mould itself around other technology in ways Facebook cannot. I’m keen to see how this grows but also how existing communities like Mumsnet evolve from what we know as forums into more advanced social networks (aka forums 2.0, or as I like to call them, mega forums… joke).
Niche social networks are the next big thing
I was discussing this very subject of niche social networks and the dominance of Facebook with my colleague Guy Phillipson earlier in the year. We came to the conclusion that niche social networks will begin to have their heyday and, from the little evidence I’ve just written about, this appears to be happening right now.
Thanks to the wider availability of simple social network technology, niche social networks are cropping up every day. Open source platforms like JomSocial for Joomla and BuddyPres for WordPress mean almost every interest has its own niche social network. Take a look at Tasty Kitchen, Fellow Fishermen, New York City Runners and this fantastic Greek pet social network. Currently Google+ even feels like a niche social network for early adopting media/technology experts – I love it! It won’t stay like that forever of course.
In fact, if you look, some niche social networks have existed for a long time and other communities are playing catch-up. Dating sites like Match, MySingleFriend, Gaydar and PlentyofFish are a prime example of niche social network; in fact they were probably the first niche social network. Often they offer more than just a match making service, they build friendships around a common situation and generate wider discussion among the people that use them. And yes, they create new relationships.
This post is more about sharing some thoughts to generate discussion instead of drawing a conclusion. I will however finish on the thought that some social networks, predominantly Facebook, have distracted from something the internet is particularly good at: bringing people together online to form community. A lot of these communities already exist as forums which I’d argue are a form of social network in their own right and these are morphing into something more advanced and ‘social network’ like.
Let’s not simply focus on the scale of large social networks, as important as this scale and their influence is. Let’s also concentrate on the bond of community and the way in which the internet can create and strengthen this.