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Blurring Offline and Online: More on the Potential of Long Tail Social Media

July 17th, 2019 · 20 comments
Photo by Ben Seidelman.

Earlier this week, I began a discussion about long tail social media. The premise behind this trend is that as our internet habits mature, we no longer need social platforms with massive user bases.

I’m cautiously optimistic about this model as I think niche networks can better deliver on the promise of the social internet while avoiding pitfalls like engineered addiction and emotional manipulation. (These smaller alternatives also tend to be better on the legal-techno geek issues like data privacy and effective contention moderation.)

In response to my recent post on this topic, a reader pointed me toward a fascinating long tail social media case study that I wanted to briefly share, as I think it helps underscore the potential of this movement.

In 2017, serial entrepreneur Gina Bianchini launched a new startup called Mighty Networks. Fellow net nerds might remember Bianchini from her 2007 company, Ning, which let users setup their own customized social networks. Ning was ahead of its time, as it launched in a period when most people were largely unfamiliar with social networking. Mighty Networks is trying again: but this time focused on mobile devices and pitching to an audience much more familiar with this mode of interaction.

The basic idea is that individuals use the software to setup custom social networks for their existing communities. The network operates like a fancy Facebook Group, with discussions divided into topics that you can easily browse and join. It also makes it easy to setup mastermind groups, virtual conferences, and offer courses.

The example networks I saw were focused (a couple thousand users at most), and typically charged subscription fees from the users (eliminating the need to sell ads or harvest data).

The feature, however, that really piqued my interest, and instigated this post, is the ability to find community members near you in the physical world.

To be more concrete, consider the specific Mighty Network that was originally brought to my attention: The Little Black Desk Academy — a small-size, exclusive social network for women business leaders.

If you’re a member of this network, and enjoy the discussions, you’re encouraged to use a built-in feature that lets you find women leaders who live nearby so you can setup offline get togethers. Similarly, if you’re traveling, you can find members in the city you’re visiting and setup an impromptu coffee date or dinner — injecting a jolt of extra value into the trip.

This blurring of the offline and online would never work on a mass market platform like Facebook or Twitter — could you imagine! — but on small networks, made up of paying members with pre-existing bonds, it provides a major boost to the social value the online tool generates.

This is just an isolated example, but it hints at an intriguing conclusion I’ve been interrogating in my recent work: perhaps in attempting to consolidate the social internet into a small number of massive platforms, we were accidentally stripping away much of the potential of this technology to actually make us more social.

20 thoughts on “Blurring Offline and Online: More on the Potential of Long Tail Social Media

  1. Melissa says:

    I’m glad you looked further into Mighty Networks. Gina and her team are doing great work for niche communities. I’ve made most of my business connections online through small groups and intentional interactions.

    Thank you for mentioning Little Black Desk Society in your post. I’m a fan of your work and how you challenge people to look at technology.

  2. Hey Cal! Thanks for the Mighty Networks post. ? One quick thing to add: While we’re seeing a ton of fantastic smaller communities with their own online courses, sub-groups, content, members along with the option to purchase membership built right in, a few of our bigger Mighty Networks are Gretchen Rubin’s Better App (www.betterapp.us) with over 70,000 members and Yoga With Adriene’s Find What Feels Good KULA (www.fwfgkula.com) which has 90,000+ members who also LOVE the Find Members Near You feature. ?

    Thanks again!

    1. Chelsey T says:

      I love Yoga With Adriene and the community she’s developed!

    2. Study Hacks says:

      I didn’t realize Gretchen’s community was also hosted by Mighty Networks. Another great example of the power of the social internet outside the walled garden of the giant platforms!

  3. Dan Andrews says:

    Our community is exactly like this (1200 users) and was on Ning for years (connecting remote/traveling entrepreneurs). I find it doesn’t suffer from the same downsides as mainstream social media, in fact it’s often the opposite interacting there can take quite a bit of effort – hosting events, coordinating with others, getting dressed up to attend events, trying to give meaningful advice/sharing experiences with others who are friends of friends and where there are stakes and shared aims etc. Once Ning was shook up we moved on to a customized version of Vanilla forums.

  4. Patty Hurley says:

    I work in higher education, and both my students and my own children are abandoning larger social network sites and use tools like Discourse almost exclusively.

  5. Joe says:

    My PhD program hosted everything on Ning until about 2 years ago. The more familiar I become with the larger networks, the more I wish it would go back.

  6. James says:

    This sounds a lot like the forums of yesteryear. Small, focused, with the ability to build IRL relationships (some of my best friends I met on such discussion forums).

    That’s somewhat scary, though. Forums were basically killed by Facebook, Twitter, and large-scale social media. Everyone went to Facebook groups instead of locally-hosted forums. Why, and what can be done about it, are questions that I’ve never seen addressed. Maybe it’s simply a mater of the cultural pendulum swinging to mass social media, and now back to localized forums, but that’s a pretty big “maybe” to be hanging a business model on.

    1. Carol says:

      I’m so pleased that someone else misses the forums of ‘yesteryear’, as you so eloquently put it. Like you, I made many friends IRL through these discussion forums and it pained me (still does) to see them replaced by Facebook and the like, as the ability to develop the connections seems to have been lost completely, as well as the ability to have more meaningful discussions. They just aren’t the same set up at all!

      Hopefully set ups like Ning and Mighty Networks will allow this format to be rediscovered and expanded – I love the idea of setting up events and things.

    2. qtypls says:

      That’s my thought. It’s just come full-circle.

    3. Mamalobster says:

      I’m a member of a particularly large and healthy forum and have travelled across the country to meet up with members. Those individual relationships, once maximized by meeting in the physical world, tend to migrate to the social media platforms.

  7. Seems interesting to me, It’s true that social media are disturbing millennials in a bad way because most of them are using social sites without any specific purpose. Well, there are pros there will also some cons. So your idea is good has to be implemented in an exact way.

  8. Julia says:

    Mighty Networks uses questionable trackers on their site. So while this might be a great solution from a social media minimalist standpoint, they forward your data to the same big tech companies who collect user data to sell to their ad customers. No thanks.
    I miss the bygone era of small independent forum communities, but I’m afraid that’s gone forever.

    1. Steven Hobbs says:

      Thank you

    2. Mighty Networks does embed a Facebook Connect tracker on their site (which is blocked by my browser using Ghostery!). But surely that is so MightyNetworks can market their product / software service to you as a customer. That tracker enables retargeting of ads as I move around the web and within Facebook. That is MightyNetworks wanting to sell me a product, their product. And if I excluded doing business with anyone who does that, the vendors from which I could choose get very very small.

      It’s fundamentally different than my logging into Facebook Group to meet people in a social media setting organized around a specific topic. I must allow Facebook to track me definitively there. No Ghostery option available. And I must wade through all the other Facebook crap while doing so.

      —-
      I’ve been a Dynamite Circle member for the last year or two, which Cal writes about here: http://www.calnewport.com/blog/2019/07/23/the-dynamite-circle-a-long-tail-social-media-case-study/

      I can see Dynamite Circle being easier, better, for using the Mighty Networks platform. . .

      1. Julia says:

        Thank you for your elaboration, Patrick, I agree that Mighty Networks is a much better alternative to FB groups and the experience is a lot different. I agree that the tracking on Mights Networks is almost harmless compared to many other sites, even Email marketing services are crawling with trackers nowadays.
        I still don’t really want to build a community on a site that tracks for ad purposes, especially with Facebook retargeting trackers, so I mentioned it. I know it’s near impossible to find a readymade community site without tracking, and of course you can avoid tracking with plugins. As far as the user experience and the possibilities of Mighty Networks goes, it’s definitely a much better alternative to Facebook, that’s right.

  9. I love the idea of a more focused way for our healthy community to interact. The challenge might be to get them to go learn a whole new tool!

  10. Kira says:

    There are actually quite a few small communities that have found homes and create meet-ups via the larger networks. I know friends who meet up with transit advocates via Twitter, and Pokémon Go groups via Discord and Reddit. And speaking more broadly — while the mass use of the big platforms gets a lot of attention in the media, I would be curious to know if most peoples’ experience of them is actually far more targeted and local anyway.

  11. Jonathan M. says:

    Hi Cal,

    I think you’re mixing up between two things: Quality content forums, and free forums with spying ads. There are good forums which are free with ads, and there are awful forums with subscription fees (or no ads). These two traits are independent.

    As for the new attempt on a new social network, I don’t think it’s going to work.
    If you think about it, current social media basically has a long tail model. I use Facebook once a week to be connected to local groups of people that are from my city. Usually this gives more meetup opportunities, because everyone from the city can join in.
    The new subscription-based model doesn’t appeal to me – it’s basically a Facebook group, only it costs money, and has a smaller user base.

  12. Job Kwara says:

    I had a similar discussion with a friend a couple of days back and we reflected on how those old forums used to be more like a small friendly and targeted community. All that was kinda buried with the introduction of social Media. Glad someone else is Thinking the same way this days.

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