Long before trying to connect billions of people, the social Internet started small. Beginning with bulletin board systems, then Usenet and finally forums, niche online communities were largely forgotten during the rise of massive social platforms. Venture-backed companies raced to exploit network effects and focused on acquiring every user in the world at the cost of quality interaction. While these social networks created massive company value, as many are beginning to see, they came at a cost.

As ideological battles escalate and backlash against the mega social platforms mount, many wonder what is next for the social Internet. The answer has been waiting in the corners like an old friend. Niche communities on forums, subReddits and apps are being repackaged and rethought for today’s modern audience. For consumers, there has never been a better time to find their own corner on the Internet. For brands, marketers and creators, understanding niche communities is a critical opportunity to deliver value through meaningful interaction and build an important business foundation. Social media is changing for the smaller, and that’s good for everyone online.

The Future is Not Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed in his recent manifesto that “private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups are by far the fastest growing areas of online communication”. While he may be correct in the abstract, as social media empires begin to crumble it is becoming clear that the future is not Facebook.

With two billion people connected, even the most obscure hobby or interest has thousands of Facebook Group members. But Facebook wasn’t designed to support niche communities, and it’s easy to see why once you engage with them.

Sign up for five or more Facebook groups and watch what happens to your newsfeed. Join a conversation thread and marvel at the inefficiencies of a comment system designed for a short back-and-forth between friends. You can feel the platform’s ineffectiveness through all group interactions.

Facebook wasn’t built for groups. That’s a good thing. We need more communities, not one.

Niche Varieties

There are three broad categories of niche community; Topic, utility and personality based and two communication modes; Real time and asynchronous.

Types of niche online communities

Topic-based communities

Reddit is the most popular topic-based community. It’s easy to be critical of Reddit (and I have been), especially if you only read the default subReddits. Without curating the Reddit experience, one is thrown into filter bubbles, ideological battles, and trolls fighting against a system they’ve deemed unjust. Explore the more niche subReddits, however, and the platform becomes a wonderful place. The more specific the community is, the more aligned its subscribers and discourse will be. SubReddit’s with less than 100k subscribers are similar to the more intimate web forums of the early 2000’s.

Forums are decidedly old school, yet they still play an important role in connecting people around a shared interest. There are countless forums that are decades old and still run strong today. With tens or hundreds of thousands of members, yearly in-person meetups and the formation of lifelong friendships, these forums persist as communities that are too big to disappear. Communities like Slashdot, Hacker News, Metafilter, Quora and Stack Overflow also fall into this category.  

These communities will have group speak, rituals (especially toward new members) and discourse rules; sometimes explicit and other times implicit.

Utility-based communities

Unbundled utilities for specialized tasks can turn into meaningful communities. Instagram is the most obvious example. The app started out as a simple tool to add filters to photos. This feature brought in users and eventually allowed for its evolution into a social network. Instagram has since expanded beyond its niche community roots to become a platform itself — a rare but possible end-state for a community.

Other utility apps have followed a similar path by serving a unique need for a specific group of people. Strava, for example, allows anyone to track their bike ride and discover new routes, but it also connects local riders, thus turning the app into a vibrant community. ZERO is an app that helps people fast and proudly displays how many people around the globe are fasting at any given moment (usually over 200,000 people!). The app was created by Digg co-founder Kevin Rose, so don’t be surprised to see fasting get more social in the near future.

Personality-Based Communities

Thanks to the rise of podcasts and YouTube, personalities like Tim Ferriss and Joe Rogan have gone beyond the talking head of traditional TV and created communities around themselves. Not all personalities evolve into communities, but those that do will often include:

  1. A member forum where like-minded fans congregate, run by either the personality (often as a premium feature) or by his or her fans
  2. In-person events and meetups
  3. Monetization via a monthly premium subscription, Patreon support and/or merch.

Many of these personalities are discovering that an overreliance on Instagram to manage their community is a fatal flaw. At the extreme, the ideological battles and de-platforming on the primary social platforms are making many seek refuge in their “owned” communities. Expect to see this trend continue. The utility layer to support such platforms is an area of opportunity that is just getting started.

Asynchronous platforms

Asynchronous platforms generally include threaded comments and a means to surface the best content, such as upvoting. The most common asynchronous platforms are Reddit and forums, powered by PHPBB or VBulletin.

Because the conversation is not in real time (although they often can be close), replies have the chance to be more thoughtful, better researched and include citations when required. It’s not uncommon for popular threads to last months or even years.

Real-Time Communities

Real-time communities are the descendants of Internet Relay Chat and include communities that organize on Slack and Discord, as well as multiplayer games like Fortnite. The real-time nature of these communities shapes them into something far more ephemerial as conversations are “of the moment.” Like Reddit, you can find a Discord server for just about any topic. Many Instagram influencers have taken to Discord, setting up a private sanctuary for their fans that isn’t ruled by the faceless Instagram algorithm. Thanks to the prevalence of powerful phones, and the Unreal Engine working on mobile operating systems, games like Fortnite also function as real-time communities, although it is unlikely that Fornite will have the staying power of forums or even Reddit.  

Come Together, Online

The experiment of throwing billions of people into the same virtual space without a common goal or shared passion has failed. Tribal instincts kick in and fights ensue. Luckily, passions unite diverse groups. By organizing around a shared goal or passion, the bright side of humanity emerges. This is nothing new. People have always come together to play sports, watch their favorite band or work together on a hobby. The goal of early Internet pioneers was to bring this camaraderie online. We may have lost sight of how to do that in pursuit of growth, but now the pendulum swings back as people seek meaningful connections. The Internet can do that, we just have to think smaller.

Next week we will explore how niche communities grow and monetize.

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