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Online networking: What's your niche?

February 26, 2007

Online social networking sites are nothing new — in the pre-browser early '90s, computer geeks used Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to engage in animated discussions about Steve Jobs and the merits of the various Stars (Wars, Trek, Galactica). As a mass phenomenon, however, online networks have come into their own only recently.

"We always see within pop culture a movement from the margins to the mainstream," Jennifer Brayton, associate professor of sociology at Ryerson University, said. "We're now at the point where [social networking sites] have reached public awareness across different demographic populations, so there's been a lot of hype in the last few years."

This newfound popularity can be attributed in part to technologies that allow users to interact more easily than before. "The concept of a community is not new, but the additional technology that makes it much more powerful is," said Brent Bernie, president of media metrics company comScore Canada.

Nowadays, anyone with an internet connection can share words, music, and video with old friends or complete strangers, brag about job skills to an extended business network, meet a soulmate, or hook up with like-minded gamers to kill virtual dragons. Still, with only so much computer time in a day, and interactive social sites multiplying like cyber-rabbits, it's not always easy to figure out where you fit in.

Broad-based networks popular

Most newbies will gravitate toward large and established sites that have broad appeal, such as MySpace or Friendster.

MySpace is the big kid on the block, with more than 100 million users — although it's unclear how many of those are actually active. MySpace was a pioneer in allowing users not only to write blogs, but to upload assorted media like music, photos, and video, and it quickly gained a reputation as the favoured online hangout for the younger crowd. This coveted status probably explains why so many MySpace pages feel like a teenager's bedroom, greeting visitors with extravagant collages of photos and videos, and a soundtrack of frequently updated pop music.

However, things change fast in the virtual world — in October 2006, media measurement firm comScore Networks reported that more than half of the registered users on MySpace were over the age of 35. A quick browse through the site these days reveals such diverse users as Donald Trump and that disturbing plastic-headed Burger King mascot (who invites visitors to "pimp [their] space with layouts from the King"). Under the circumstances, it would be surprising if the site weren't losing a little of its teen street cred.

Friendster has been around since 2002 (making it a codger in web terms), and specifically targets the 18 to 35 age segment. A strong draw initially, Friendster has since fallen behind sites such as MySpace and college-oriented FaceBook in terms of both members and media hype, but remains a major player with about 37 million users globally. David Jones, vice-president of marketing for Friendster, notes Friendster's philosophical distinction: "In MySpace … teenage boys become 'friends' with attractive women or bands because they're trying to change who they are in the real world based on who they are in the virtual world. At Friendster, the vast majority of the connections that people make are their actual friends and family, and not just expressions of what one likes or wants to be."

Niche sites on the rise

To combat the burgeoning threat from more focused networks such as Dogster.com, Momjunction.com, and Vampirefreaks.com (for fans of dogs, kids, and the undead, respectively), both Friendster and MySpace have literally hundreds of thousands of discussion groups on everything from '80s hair bands to UFOs.

This strategy can backfire, however, as people don't always want to filter hundreds of groups to find the right one.

"I do work in Japanese pop cultural studies, and lately I find it's easier to go to a J-pop niche site than to go to MySpace and find 30 different Japanese pop culture communities that I should join," Ryerson's Brayton notes.

Still, not everyone wants to be part of a site that's focused on specific subjects. Friendster's Jones acknowledges that loyalty is a rare commodity in social networking, but points out that "most peoples' lives are defined across multiple dimensions, and there still is a strong need for a broad-based social network."

Virtual face-to-face

Those who prefer their relationships to develop face-to-face, so to speak, can adopt cartoonish avatars and explore 3D virtual worlds.

The concept originated with role-playing games like Warcraft, but today perhaps the best-known example is the much-ballyhooed Second Life. It's a largely user-built universe where users can fly, engage in virtual sex, build homes and stores, and find compatible folks to form virtual countries based on common interests. It's also becoming a popular commercial venue, where real-world companies like Reuters and IBM maintain corporate offices and hold press conferences, meetings, and cocktail parties.

Catherine Smith, director of marketing for Linden Labs, the company that created Second Life, said, "Traditional social networking applications allow for a limited and static degree of interaction. The ability to create varied, unique and wildly creative landscapes and social atmospheres differentiates Second Life from other forms of interactive media."

MTV jumped into world building in 2006 with Virtual Laguna Beach, an online re-creation of the reality show about teens in a Southern California beach town. There's no such thing as an ugly or adult avatar here, and there's ample opportunity to download music and even buy real-world clothes and other paraphernalia.

Business jumps in

Corporations have also discovered online social networks. With corporate pages in MySpace already common, companies are turning to proprietary social sites.

Toyota recently launched an interactive website where owners of Toyota Priuses and other hybrid vehicles can meet and upload pictures, videos and music. The site attracted more than 9,000 registered users in its first month of operation.

Cindy Knight, marketing communications PR manager for Toyota Motor Company, explained that the site serves the needs of both customers and company, and isn't intended to replace other social networking sites — it's just something else "in the mix." Users like it, she said, because "people who gravitate to hybrid technology really like to explain their values and reasoning and really want to talk about it, so they'll use the site for social networking."

For Toyota, it's an opportunity to get constant and immediate feedback from customers, both good and bad, and to incorporate it into the company's marketing strategies. While this kind of transparency has to be managed carefully by companies, it's here to stay, and business can engage or ignore it at their peril.

Path from here

What does all this mean in real numbers? ComScore numbers indicate that in 2006, about half of all Canadians logged on to some sort of social network, and that number will likely continue to grow as the technology becomes more sophisticated.

Perhaps the most convincing sign that social networking is no flash in pan is the money that has started to flow from sponsors. Where people gather, advertising money tends to pool as well, and Jupiter Research predicts that brand-advertiser use of social marketing will increase 40 per cent in the next year alone.

"Social media will continue to be a vital part of community building. What was once a novel concept is now ubiquitous not only for companies, but for individuals as well," Linden Labs' CEO Philip Rosedale said.

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