Back in 2011, industry and interest specific social networks were the ‘future of social networking’. In 2016, they’re virtually non-existent. What happened to the concept of speciality social media platforms and why exactly did they fail?
Like many people, I entered the digital profession somewhat accidentally. Having worked as a theatre journalist for several years, I joined a startup company called StageWon in September 2011 as their Editor and Head of PR. The concept behind the site seemed revolutionary at the time but, in reality, it was one of many - all driven by the same principle, and all destined with the same fate.
Its aim was to bring the rapidly rising popularity of social media into industry-specific territory - helping fans, aspiring professionals and big names in the theatre world to connect, collaborate and grow. It was a social network for the theatre industry and it had aims to connect, teach, provide resource and expand - mixing online play directories with video masterclasses, news, interviews and reviews - all of which could be targeted to your specific likes and interests. Fans of theatre shows would receive upcoming show information and competitions to meet their favourite stars, while budding professionals would receive professional resources to help them grow and get more job opportunities.
Looking back, it was the early days of what saturates today’s digital environment - putting the right content in front of the right people. But it wasn’t unique. Newspapers were calling industry-specific online social platforms the ‘future’ in 2011, and people were seemingly excited at the potential of newly established channels. MySpace had gone from a daily staple to unused overnight, and generic networks were being forgotten as quickly as they arrived. The original audience that helped social media experience its meteoric pace of world domination, once adolescent and with nothing much to say, were becoming professionals in their own right, and work/interest based networks seemed far more logical than commenting your friend’s wall pointlessly (gifs clearly weren’t as popular then) or sharing a status about what you’d eaten for dinner (that’s what Instagram was invented for, after all).
In the theatre industry alone, where networking is crucial to success, there were soon several somewhat similar but slightly different variations on StageWon. To my knowledge all of these early adopters now cease to exist, from government-funded platform IdeasTap to the later arrival of west-end profile platform Stage Status. However, it wasn’t just the artsy folks that loved their networks. Biznik.com was the home of networking for small businesses, builderslink.com existed to connect building professionals and there was even a networking site for funeral directors, cdsocial.com. Hundreds upon hundreds of new networks began to appear, all specific to a different group of people or interest. Looking at them today, there’s one thing most ( though admittedly not all) have in common; they either cease to exist or are no longer active (I’m sure there’s a poorly thought out joke related to cdsocial in there somewhere).
With similar algorithms and aims behind each network, the concept was a good one and something that seems perfectly suited for today’s blogging-obsessed world. So why didn’t it work?
Smarter Social Networking
When these channels began to disappear (from around 2013 onwards), many (myself included) snubbed the idea as a dream that was always doomed to fail. Thinking back, however, these networks had far more in common with how we approach digital today that I ever could have realised.
In my opinion, the reason they never really found their profitability or popularity was in two key points. The first lies in the nature and design of the social networks themselves, which tended to follow a Facebook-style personal profile. Most people on Facebook use it to connect with friends or, at the very least, people they’ve met. It’s a fairly personal page in which you share snippets of your everyday life and whereabouts. It’s, therefore, not a natural way to connect with new contacts unlike Twitter, which with its character restrictions tends to be less personal and more to the point. On networks like Twitter, you don’t need to go out of your way to find new people you want to associate with. On Facebook and their spin-off niche networks, you do.
Second of all and perhaps more interestingly, Facebook upped its game - big time. It was no longer a chronological display of your friend’s day. It started to evolve itself into the unthinkably smart algorithm it is today. It’s no longer about what our friends like, but what we like. Of the hundreds of friends I have on my page, I’ve probably seen only one or two important updates from some people over the past few years. Unlike niche social networks, Facebook understood that we’re not mono-faceted. We have multiple interests, sometimes interconnected. Modern social networks are no longer about having a particular personality we associate with, they’re about allowing us to express our own particular personality on a platform so complex it can adapt and change as we do.
The early 2010s might have been dominated by highly specific social networks, but the mids are owned by smarter social networking. From Facebook to LinkedIn, we know what to expect from the network we’re visiting and it fits itself around the information we tell it, never the other way round.