A little reflection on networks I put together over the weekend…
Take a look outside, and you’ll see what everyone is talking about on Facebook and Twitter: the weather. As the US Atlantic coast takes on Hurricane Irene, it’s not surprising that the topic is flooding streams across the most prominent social media outlets. Fortunately, those looking for a different conversation can flee to more nuanced communities staking out their very own piece of the social web.
While the staples of social media tend to paint broad strokes in how you associate with others online (when I think Facebook, I think personal; for Twitter, micro; LinkedIn, professional; and Foursquare, location-based), there is no shortage of networks being digitized along narrower lines. After all, networks start with specific shared interests or values that aren’t necessarily experienced in digital ways. Burning Man and WWOOF are two examples of networks that are in part defined by members who are as disconnected from the digital world as possible.
Here are some of my favorite “niche” online communities helping me ride out Irene’s wrath:
TED is all about new ideas. But the true gravity of TED resides in the fact that inspirational and compelling speakers convey the ideas with a “you can too” ethos. TED Talks become conversation entry points, from which any member of the online community can comment. Top comments are shared in a weekly email digest, highlighting that you could be the next to take the TED stage (not surprisingly, TED encourages others to hold their own TED-style events through TEDx). TED.com now boasts 1.5 million monthly visitors. Not bad for something that all started with taped lectures.
As homemade videos of cats, babies and accidents started to steal the world’s attention on YouTube, filmmakers facing quality and time restrictions scratched their heads looking for a better way to upload. And then Vimeo came along. Whereas YouTube puts the video at the center, leaving little or no concern for where it came from (no wonder so much is illegally uploaded!), Vimeo offers a robust and very easy-to-use platform that highlights individuals alongside videos. Features throughout the site accentuate the bias for quality creators, including the ability to identify the roles of the contributors to the often-complex video production process. It even offers Vimeo Video School, which provides simple and fun guides to honing complicated video production skills.
If Vimeo is a response to YouTube, Flickr is a response to Facebook’s Photos feature. Easily my favorite of Yahoo’s offerings, Flickr approaches photography through a decidedly more professional lens. For example, Flickr automatically detects and shares what camera was used to create the photos you love, and can even show you the most popular cameras used by its members globally. This makes Flickr your social-enabled companion in becoming a better photographer (yes, it can even be smarter than your art school friends despite what they may think).
Until I found Grooveshark, I was obsessed with keeping my music organized on iTunes. The more organized I was, the faster I could find the perfect song to either share with a friend, use in a video, or drop on my iTakeYourPick. Being totally cloud-based with built-in friend sharing and Facebook integration features from first login, Grooveshark gave me little reason to continue my music organization habit. It has never been easier to see what your friends are listening to and to share the perfect companion playlist to any emotional state, from “break-up” to “pump-up.” With a stork en route to deliver an iTunes cloud-based product and Spotify heating up, Grooveshark may have competition on the horizon but it remains my Cloud 9 music-sharing network for now.
It’s easy to miss the social aspects of Netflix if you take the get-me-to-my-couch-and-eating-popcorn-as-quickly-as-possible approach. But if you pay attention to what others are saying and what your friends are watching, you’re less likely to enter into a “regretflix” situation. Unfortunately, the “Friends” feature was first moved from home-page prominence to the footer, and has now been removed without much notice. Like many web applications, Netflix is ditching features and leaving a fair amount of the social component up to Facebook, still allowing for the easy posting of what you’re watching there. That’s too bad since seeing the percentage of similarity you had with friends was helpful. While it’s hard to imagine life after Netflix, I’ll be keeping an eye on SnagFilms and especially MUBI for features that allow me to more easily track my friends’ watching habits.
“Yeah, right” is a normal reaction to the Couchsurfing premise, which is fairly simple: you let strangers sleep at your house for free. So, how is Couchsurfing doing such a great job overcoming this inherent mental hurdle? The truth is that the network cares very deeply about safety, privacy and “what’s in it for you.” All it takes is one mediocre travel experience where you felt un-safe or overly touristy, and the Couchsurfing community of (so-far) benevolent travelers actually becomes a go-to network for local customized advice. The site goes to great lengths with address verification, “vouching,” references, both public and anonymous feedback and other measures to make sure that there are levels of interaction available for even the most trepid travelers. I’ve personally found that I’ve never felt as safe or connected to local culture as when I’ve had a few Couchsurfing hosts lined up.
OK, so personal finance is not an area where you would expect a lot of social interaction. And that is still mainly the reality on Mint. However, with its clearly friendly tone (“Where your money went”) and rapidly growing user base, tools are likely to emerge in the near future to allow shared management or information about how your own budget maintenance practices compare with others. Advice already arrives via Mint.com through messages such as this one: “You’re earning less than 1% interest on your Savings. Others are earning 3%. Learn how you can too.” Although Mint will likely develop at a gradual enough pace to prevent concerns about privacy and security, do not be surprised when you will be able to easily learn how you stack up financially vs. others in your neighborhood, country or friend circle.