Niche Social Networks Could Still Succeed

The increasing dominance of Facebook, and the fading of other sites like MySpace and, makes me wonder about the concept of one ruling social network. Human beings, after all, naturally belong to a variety of networks based on different contexts like shared interests, work, school, geography and the like. So it seems logical that there is room for specialized or niche social networks oriented around those specific groups or activities.

Three things make me think so:

  1. A handful of social networks delivering specialized functions have big audiences.
  2. Facebook’s effort to add specialization to its network is immature.
  3. Other networks can harness social services through open APIs — if they’re careful.

Though Facebook Groups, a solution to niche social networks, is incomplete, the company is providing APIs and services to app developers to build their own, like BranchOut‘s career network within Facebook. To be sure, it can be risky to depend on another company’s platform. Last week, Twitter locked out UberMedia and TwapperKeeper for using unapproved URL shorteners, and for archiving and re-licensing data without an official Twitter deal. Last year, Facebook and Google blocked each other from harvesting contacts, and Apple had to remove Facebook connectivity from its Ping social network due to the “onerous terms” Facebook wanted as compensation for Apple’s presumed heavy usage. The takeaway: Specialist social networks should negotiate before implementing.

Hunch co-founder Chris Dixon suggests that developers should trust platform companies who are open with their product roadmaps, or at least exhibit predictable strategies. Platforms without established revenues, such as Twitter or Foursquare are less transparent. Compared with them, for instance, Facebook’s business model is clear: It sells advertising and collects a percentage of spending on virtual goods via its Credits system, and usually only bullies big competitors.

Companies should use Facebook and the others for customer acquisition, then ease off technology dependencies. For example, use Facebook log-in initially, and then migrate users to an OAuth-based process later by suggesting they update their password for security. After importing social graph data, build up your own database of friend connections by tracking specialized communications.

Promising niches require specific audiences or contexts. For examples of this, and to read more on why niche social networks can grow, read my latest column at GigaOM Pro.

Image courtesy of flickr user James Cridland.

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