The Power of Niche Social Network Sites

The power of niche social sites isn’t just in connecting people, it’s in providing tools that allow people to do something better than they could before…or, the reason why PatientsLikeMe is an amazing web site. Ravelry.com is a social network site for the “knit and crochet community”. A site for knitters, you ask? What will […]

The power of niche social sites isn’t just in connecting people, it’s in providing tools that allow people to do something better than they could before…or, the reason why PatientsLikeMe is an amazing web site.

Ravelry.com is a social network site for the “knit and crochet community”.

A site for knitters, you ask? What will they think of next…a site for dog owners?

The reason why Revelry.com and other niche sites seem so alien is because they support communities that we often don’t see because we don’t participate in them. My wife is a knitter, and I have often been struck at how often, when I visit a yarn shop with her, somewhere in the back there is a group of women (almost always women) sitting round a circle in rocking chairs chatting and knitting. While knitters and crocheters have likely always gotten together as a community, they usually do so in some quiet environment where non-knitters won’t bother them.

Knitting groups are a classic third place, just like the barbershop or pub.

The simple exposure of creating a web site dedicated to these communities comes across as odd or unecessary because to people outside the community it might be their first exposure to it. Knitters are a community?, we ask. That’s exactly the point of niche communities. They aren’t for everyone, and they are often focused on a very specific activity.

But to the people inside that community, niche social sites are as natural as any software (if software can be natural). So as software infects all parts of our lifestyles, so it will support our various activities, no matter how odd or niche they are.

A few months back Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb wrote a bullish article on niche social networks in The Nearly Never Ending Market for Niche Social Networks and while the points Marshall makes are spot on, I think there is a bigger overarching opportunity for these sites.

Marshall says:

“What is a social network? Typically, it’s just a website that offers users a profile page, the ability to publish to the web, to add other users as friends and to send user-to-user messages, or sitemail.”

This is the generic view of a social network and it fits our perceptions of what they are. But for niche sites, the opportunity isn’t just connecting the people together, the opportunity is making them better at the activity they’re doing.

My favorite example is PatientsLikeMe.com, which was pointed out to me by Adam Darowski in response to an earlier post I wrote: Sermo a sign of a larger trend toward specialized social networks. PatientsLikeMe.com is a site that supports people with diseases such as ALS, AIDS/HIV, multiple schlerosis, and OCD.

Now, PatientsLikeMe is a great connecting tool, helping people communicate and support each other while living with the disease. But while that’s great, and is why forums and message boards are such amazing tools, the site’s value actually goes way beyond it, as it allows people to record their symptoms and match them with the medication they’re taking. Not only does this allow people to track what they’ve done, the site can help compare people’s experiences.

This is where PatientsLikeMe is redefining medicine. Imagine going to a doctor who doesn’t have a cure for your disease. He or she will try some number of medications to help alleviate your symptoms…they might increase your dose or try a new drug…but they’re basically throwing darts…they don’t know the best course of action. What PatientsLikeMe does is to help find what’s working best for everyone in the community…thereby treating the group’s experience as real research data.

So, patients are able to watch each other and see what the best course of action might be, or at least find out what seems to be working for others at the moment. This is incredibly powerful, as it allows the community to come up with better treatments than they had before!

If you haven’t read it, please read the fabulous New York Times piece on PatientsLikeMe: Practicing Patients.

PatientsLikeMe, Ravelry, and Dogster demonstrate the power of niche communities. It’s not just improved communication, it’s improved action. The value targeted, focused software can have is astounding…even as the novelty of the web has long since worn off.

Published: May 2nd, 2008

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