Forget Facebook: 6 great ‘niche’ social networks

The social sphere has more to offer than just Facebook and Twitter

General social networks hoping to compete with the big boys and girls have their work cut out for them. There’s no argument that the darkest recesses of the Internet are littered with failed or forgotten efforts to dominate the online social lives of Netizens. The lucky ones are just struggling by with a tiny, passionate userbase.

But perhaps the most exciting social networks are the ones that only want to take advantage of that enthusiast minority – very purposefully resisting the temptation to compete with the giants. Instead, they pick just one area and focus resolutely on their chosen topic. Heck, most even let you sign in with Facebook.

The social networks below vary in age and popularity, but they all have plenty to offer their target audience as they attempt to build up their enthusiast communities even more. As the likes of Facebook threaten to upset their delicate balance and popularity with every minor update, these smaller sites are also showing a genuine spirit of innovation and forward-thinking that the giants simply cannot match.

Film: Letterboxd / Mubi12020_60_news_hub_multi_630x0

Letterboxd emerged from beta earlier this year, and is easily one of the slickest, most intuitive film sites out there. It allows users to rate films, post reviews and build up their own ‘catalogue’ of films they’ve watched – all while sharing with their network of friends and Letterboxd users at large. There’s also a ‘pro’ version for $19 a year that allows you to import data and ratings from IMDB and Netflix.

For even more serious cinephiles, there’s Mubi, which has been around since 2008, but with a stronger focused on auteur and arthouse cinema. It offers similar rating / review features, but goes further and has strong editorial content and a catalogue of streaming films alongside the standard community features and forums.

Books: GoodReads12019_60_news_hub_multi_630x0

There are a few different reading social sites out there, but GoodReads – recently acquired by Amazon – is fast emerging as a boss of them all, having just announced it has 20 million users.

Again, there’s a heavy focus on reviewing and cataloging, as well sharing friends’ reading activities. The site’s unique selling points include allowing users to take part in virtual book clubs, while the strong emphasis on user-generated content makes it feel more likely readers will stumble upon your review or thoughts on a particular book.

Let’s hope Amazon doesn’t mess it up too badly.

Language: English, baby!12018_60_news_hub_multi_630x0

English, baby!, dedicated to encouraging people to learn English, has exploded into one of the most successful language sites on the Internet with an estimated 1-2 million users. With quizzes, lessons and – most importantly – actual teachers, it’s a great resource for those learning or willing to teach English. They even produce a ‘soap opera’ about learning English, and offer lessons from celebrity teachers.

The ‘social’ aspect encourages users to befriend and engage with others during their adventures in learning or teaching English. With a significant international audience – a quarter of the users are estimated to be from China, for example, and it’s also particularly popular in Japan – it’s one of the most globally successful niche networks.

Although certain segments of the website are open to the public, there is a $5 monthly subscription for those who want full access to the site’s audio content and ‘live’ teachers.

Athletics: Athlinks12015_60_news_hub_multi_630x0

Runners and athletes tend to be particularly interested in comparing & contrasting their performance with others, which is where Athlinks comes in. The site’s main feature is an ever-expanding database of race and performance times that allows users to compare their results and times to both friends and strangers, or even against users on a similar performance level. That’s alongside the photos, gear lists and timetable / calender features.

The site’s front page currently states there are over 325,000 registered members, and it’s one of those services that will only grow more and more useful as its databases increases.

Games: Steam12017_60_news_hub_multi_630x0

Many game services have grown more social network like in recent years, but PC gamers will be long-since familiar with the wildly popular Steam. Initially born as a portal for developer Valve’s own games, it soon expanded into a full-fledged digital store, famed for the service’s fantastic software sales (the latest of which just ended yesterday – sorry).

In the almost ten-years since launch, it has also become the definitive hub for gamers to share videos, screenshots, achievements and – of course – play games together. It has now grown to support Linux and Mac users, as well as limited mobile and PS3 services. No surprise Microsoft and Sony are copying so many features for their next-generation consoles.

Steam’s latest innovation? The introduction of digital trading cards that are collected semi-randomly and then traded among users. It’s far, far more addictive than it has any right to be.