Big or Bullshit: Vertical Social Networks

Continuing on from widgets in our Big or Bullshit series, Brad and I decided that we wanted to cover vertical social networks next. First we need a little definition. I define vertical social networks as those that target a very specific set of users, rather than mass audience. The litmus test is that the users are connecting about something, and that something is not so broad that it would appeal to most of a particular demographic. Some great Colorado examples are YourRunning (running enthusiasts), YourCycling (cycling enthusiasts), and Thoos (running enthusiasts). Other examples include Dogster (dog lovers), LibraryThing (book lovers), Boompa (auto enthusiasts), etc. I would not consider sites like LinkedIn (business), Last.FM (music), or even Colorado’s own Godspace (religion) to be vertical in nature – they’re targeting very broad audiences that could almost be considered generic.

Success in social networking so far has been driven by advertising (and acquisitions) and the classic “go horizontal, get lots of eyeballs” approach. The business motivations of moving away from general user bases to highly focused ones that the vertical networks target are seemingly obvious. In advertising, the promised land is knowing exactly who you’re talking to and what they care about, not just talking to the masses. While this seems to apply to vertical social networks on the surface, I believe that this thinking is somewhat flawed. Bear with me.

I’m pretty sure that vertical social networks will continue to proliferate. Users like them, and there are advertising, sponsorship, and affiliate dollars to be had. I just don’t think many niche social networks will have enormous exits – but I think many will be sustainable. So I think the future is one in which many people won’t belong to one or two social sites, they’ll belong to more based upon their various passions (mine might be tennis, early stage technology investing, Ruby on Rails, books, building companies, space exploration, travel, and so on).

So what happens when there are just too many social sites for a regular guy deal with? Perhaps we’ll see the emergence of social aggregators and the centralization of identity and trust (these last things need to happen anyway). You see some examples already. Sites like Profilactic, SocialURL and soon, we hear, the much anticipated product from Jared Polis’s new company Confluence Commons are trying to help by aggregating existing social content. But as these social networks proliferate, one thing that would be incredibly helpful would be a “write once, use many” centralized user profile. I would love to see OpenID go in this direction (or someone leveraging OpenID) by allowing users to create their base profile in one place rather than having to constantly enter it into every network they want to check out. Tools like these will abound, and the key is that these tools should be in a unique position to truly understand each users preferences, affinities, and social webs. This may even be the way that the attention economy initially develops: rather than getting users to volunteer their click-streams, it’s far easier to simply study what they’re already telling you.

I don’t believe that MySpace, Bebo, and FaceBook have yet fully harnessed the profile information freely offered by their users for laser targeted advertising, but they will. If you believe that, just imagine for a second what the aggregators can do! Of course, they’ll need the users, but I believe that there are enough benefits to users in this scenario that they’ll flock to the aggregators.

When I think about what’s likely to happen, I think that the vertical social networks will proliferate and become a useful part of the web. But in terms of their potential as an investment – I guess I’ll have to call Bullshit. Look to the aggregators and the toolsets that emerge around identity – I think that will be Big.

We’ll know what Brad thinks soon. But pick a limb and come hang out with me. What do you think about vertical social networks?

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