Study Hacks Blog

The Dynamite Circle: A Long Tail Social Media Case Study

July 23rd, 2019 · 23 comments
Photo by Samuel Chou.

The Dynamite Circle has been on the periphery of my radar since my early days as a blogger. It’s a small, subscription-based social network operated by the Tropical MBA web site, which caters to entrepreneurs running small businesses from exotic locations (I’ve been a guest on their podcast a couple times).

This network, abbreviated simply as DC, has around 1200 enthusiastic members. In theory, these individuals could have found each other and organized on existing major social media platforms, using custom hash tags and Facebook Groups, or perhaps gathering on a sub-reddit, or subscribing to each others’ Instagram feeds.

All of this would be free and supported by slick apps with polished interfaces.

Instead, DC members pay around $500 a year to access a custom set of private forums: there are no sophisticated image recognition algorithms auto-tagging photos, or machine learning models carefully selecting posts to maximize engagement. And no one seems to care.

To help understand what’s going on here, I asked co-founder Dan Andrews if he’d allow me to lurk around the DC network for an afternoon. He graciously agreed. What I discovered gets to the core of the long form social media phenomenon I’ve been writing about recently (c.f., 1, 2).

Here’s what members do on the DC network:

  • They ask questions and offer advice on issues that are hyper-specific to the unique challenges of running location-independent small businesses. Some recent discussion topics I stumbled across in my casual browsing included: sharing experiences about using coach.me to improve productivity habits; describing a tool that makes it easy to test web sites from multiple different browsers; and a discussion of local marketing techniques.
  • They arrange real world meetings with each other. On the third Thursday of every month, in cities around the world, DC members setup real world gatherings of local members. Last Thursday, there were gatherings in San Francisco, Melbourne, New York, Bangkok, Austin, Monterey and Portland, to name just a few cities among many. Beyond these more regular gatherings, members seem eager to setup ad hoc meetings. I quickly came across a post from someone visiting the bay area, looking for a group with which to talk shop, and someone else seeking volunteers to join them in their upcoming mountain bike trip in Bali. As Dan explained to me, this coordination of offline connection is crucial: “there’s so so so much that’s happened ‘beyond the forum’ amongst members.” 

Large social media platforms are useful for easy distraction, yelling at famous people, and, more seriously, large-scale activism. But long tail alternatives offer something equally as powerful: real connection, freed from the artifice of the major services, with people you’d otherwise have a find time finding.

In the long tail, there’s no scrounging for attention, no trolls, no pile-ons by strangers who hubristically decree that you said the “wrong” thing, no desperate deception deployed through carefully curated photos, and, importantly, no compulsive over-use. Instead: just interesting people, putting aside some time to talk with some other interesting people in ways that makes their life better.

And on occasion, mountain biking together in Bali.

23 thoughts on “The Dynamite Circle: A Long Tail Social Media Case Study

  1. Joe says:

    Cal, I’m wondering if you’ve seen the Mr Money Mustache forums? They’re about as robust as it gets, and there seems to be no interest in moving them to something like Facebook Groups. It’s a community that allows for a general topic, financial independence with some minimalism thrown in, that breaks down into many smaller subtopics throughout the boards.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I have seen the MMM forums. Those are good example of long tail social media. As are the forums for Bogleheads…

  2. Dan Andrews says:

    Very cool to see your perspective on the group here. A lot of the stuff we do in the group, from masterminds (structured critical conversations via phone and in-person) to meetups requires a lot of effort from members.

    I’ve often worried that the focus of writers online about ‘engagement’ stats and the ease of finding them on social media has really hurt the independent blogosphere, and perhaps disincentivized more people from trying to form niche social networks. For those writers who don’t get the chance to meet their audience, it’s easy to assume that hours of toil and few comments/shares/emails means that nobody has ‘engaged’ with your work.

    For good thinking and writing this is often very far from the truth and I’d guess there’s even a negative correlation between intellectual impact (which has great potential to inspire, persuade, and guide) and what we often classify as ‘engagement’ on the web.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      The effort aspect was something else I found very interesting about long tail networks like DC. The major platforms try to minimize friction as much as possible: bathing you in algorithmically-optimized streams of dully distracting content. Long tail networks, by contrast, often require a lot of analog, real world work from their users, which seems to greatly increase the value they return.

      This is a point I emphasize in Digital Minimalism: we often tell ourselves that what we crave is complete downtime where we have to expend very little energy and just be passively entertained, but what we actually need is more energy-intensive, high quality activities that end up recharging us much more.

      1. Melissa says:

        @dan and @study hacks
        As a facilitator and host for a niche community, your comments are refreshing and encouraging. Thank you!

  3. Srinivas says:

    Hey Cal

    After our conversation the other day about Mighty Networks, we already set one up. 35 members have joined already. But we only invited our most engaged email subscribers. We’ll be mentioning it soon on the podcast.

    The value of meeting in person as opposed to digitally seems to be finally hitting people in the face thanks to your work.

    1. Melissa says:

      That’s awesome!! Congratulations!

  4. Straminin Gang says:

    It sounds like the Rotary club and the Lions club, which now have online sites of course. Is there any significant difference between these traditional clubs and those long-tail social ‘media’?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I think the big difference is that your local Rotary club is only made up of people from your town. Long tail social media seems to allow people to enjoy a Rotary club type community, but made up entirely of people who fit some narrow and important interest to them, such as location-independent entrepreneurs, or creatives who are fans of Srini (see above comment!).

      This was one of the big ideas of Digital Minimalism: the internet is best not when it provides us entirely new ways of behaving, but when it takes things we known for sure are good for us and makes them even better.

  5. Pakeezah says:

    Cal, this likes like a new book in making.

  6. Geoff says:

    I see potential here for science too.

    twitter seems to be big at the moment in academic circles as a ‘great way’ to promote/communicate your research, but I’m not convinced.

    Science has thrived for centuries already on the publication process, and by gathering niched individuals in every field through conferences.

    I can hardly think of a better example, of the potential benefits of enhancing something we already know to be good, than building forums for online communities of scientists in given fields, something independent from what already exists.

    Research gate maybe, but even that has many of the typical red flags of mainstream social media.

    I like the emphasis in this post on how DC is designed to bring like minded entrepreneurs together, but not in a way that supplants real communication.

    1. Sarah says:

      To your point about science, In my field many subspecialties have listservs which allow members to share specific cases and questions with the group and get engaged feedback from others with experience in the topic. I find those results much better than similarly oriented Facebook groups. Face to face interactions happen at conferences, where being active on the listserv is a useful way to make contacts.

  7. Jan Martin Rolenc says:

    I was wondering about the same thing as Geoff. What about academic long tail social media? Do they already exist? What is your experience? I’m in a desperate need for something like this. Using Twitter or Facebook for this purpose is too demanding and distracting and academic “social networks” known to me, like ResearchGate or Academia.edu, have not convinced me yet.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      What field are you in? My experience in computer science is that conferences fill this role. There are a couple conferences in my field that I attend almost every year, in which I can spend time in-person with collaborators, meet new collaborators, introduce my students into the social network of our area, etc.

      There are a few other similar setups in our field: one of my favorite are the Dagsthul seminars. They’re invite only, but essentially you go and live in a converted castle in the middle of nowhere in Germany for a week with a group of thinkers all working on the same problem.

      1. Joe says:

        Interesting. I’m in the instructional design field, and while there are conferences, my university only pays for 1 each year. It fills a bit of the role, but I definitely miss the weekly paper discussion at the campus bar that I had in my PhD program. Nothing close to that exists where I am now.

        1. GranTorino says:

          To parallel the loss of your weekly paper discussion a recent (long overdue) spat has emerged in clinical medicine/patient care about the loss of the “old school” doctor’s lounge, where informal discussions among peers (from different areas of medicine) could be had and ideas usefully bandied about on tough cases. The MBA “suits” see this physical space as unproductive yet it was hugely productive (just not metric measurable/clickable) in terms of medical management but also in terms of camaraderie and burnout prevention. However, due to medicolegal issues and “public perception” ruling the roost, I sadly doubt long tail social media can cure medicine’s ills, as eventually I fear its privacy would be disrupted/used in court against you. Nice discussion of this topic though! GT

      2. Geoff says:

        Statistical Genetics. Yes conferences are great for exactly the reasons you state. In the interest of creating technology that improves this communication rather than hinders it, I wonder if LTSM is an avenue that can be taken.

        As a PhD student especially, approaching high profile academics in your field can be quite intimidating. A low-interruption social media platform that connects you directly with other researchers in your field in a more casual/digital setting would be ideal.

  8. Jarrod Henry says:

    So if a group of creatives or friends or what not were to form one of these, what does it look like? It seems to be that a lot of work goes into the long tail social media, and Im a little curious what that work looks like and what that work acts like? It can’t simply be about having limited membership and eschewing the larger genericized sites.. there’s something else to it. A lot of these seem to be older communities that have built up over time, so are we still capable of doing that kind of community building now that the big five are an option?

  9. Jonathan M. says:

    Hi Cal, I commented on your previous article and thought about it again after reading this one.

    The problem with the payed models is that almost everyone today is used to get free services from the web – we have free social media, free Google, free YouTube, free online forums, free email clients, free software, etc.

    Of course that means that free comes with the price of data harvesting. But it’s something that most people have come to accept, even in the tech industry. It’s very common today to see ‘free’ apps on Google Play that harvest your data, be it a simple video game or a sophisticated app for photo filters.

  10. Bunty SomRoy says:

    Hey Cal, I’ve been a member of the Dynamite Circle for almost 3 years.

    I thought I’d weigh in one more thing that it’s hard to decipher from the forums.

    The community has become my family. So much so that I now live with 2 other members of the community for the 2nd year in a row in Bali.

    We live together, we co-work together, we grow together.

    I’m sure there are many other similar tribes within this community as well.

    It’s really the intangible magic that happens between all the dot points that make up the value of this community.

    Hope my experience helps!

  11. As long-time DC member and ADD entrepreneur I find most long-tail forums mind bogglingly boring…….

    Reddit drives me nuts, and so do blogs…long-tail FB posts are just as bad for me…..there are few things that can grasp my attention…

    But there is something different about the DC. They have done a great job at creating a community of entrepreneurs that want to give…a community of people that want to share their juiciest secrets with…along with their problems and difficulties. I know the people in that forum and I know their intention….so it makes my ADD change from run-away mode to…hey, let’s spend some time here.

    To this day, I have only found one other community that can compare with that type of curation. 😀

  12. Good read Cal, in instructional design circles we call the phenomena of mixing up your learning materials to accommodate different learning types “blended learning”. It strikes me that social media “done well” might be something similar. When social media contributes to social reality, the end goals of socialization ( cultivating shared sources of meaning and value) get met. Exchanging information online and be informative and useful, but one might argue that you virtual conversations without a live presence strips the humanity out of our social learning experience. This gets beyond the time-suck phenomena, and goes into the concept that social learning without flesh-and-blood socialization removes the most important part of the experience:people. It’s no wonder that a great deal of social media has to deal with anti-social behavior such as trolling and bullying.

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