Let us face it. Gargantuan social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram may not be our cup of tea any longer. When social media came into existence for the first time, the idea was to connect people to replicate offline communities digitally. At the time, you might have looked around and found people with similar interests and liked those niche places where your opinions mattered and your content was valued without worrying about massive data breaches, offensive trolls and wicked algorithms. But the bigger they became, the worse they got.
Even Facebook seems to have realised that offering all things for all people (much like a mainstream broadsheet) will not stand it in good stead in the long run. Co-founder Chris Hughes has demanded that it should be broken up to protect users and democracy, and the company has already announced a redesign of its app to focus on interest-based groups. The idea is to increase user engagement and promote personal conversations. Digital media experts welcome the move, and many feel that the future lies in drilling down into niche social networks.
Siddharth Deshmukh, Adjunct Faculty and Senior Advisor at MICA, agrees. "Facebook built its business model for scale and that was its undoing. It became too big for its own good. The human mind is not capable of managing relationships beyond 150 or 200," he points out. When it goes beyond that, one fails to get that unique sense of social belonging and meaningful bonding. One key learning from Facebook, says Deshmukh, is that scale does not work well for communities.
This is corroborated by the rise in niche social media groups. There is Tripoto, an online community for travellers; Roposo caters to fashion lovers; NikePlus and Strava target fitness enthusiasts; Goodreads is for book lovers; Letterboxd is for film fanatics and Untapped for the beer community. There is even Hater, a dating app that brings people together based on what they hate, and Supernatural Connections for those who believe in paranormal activities.
Such niche platforms are rapidly filling up the space left unaddressed by horizontal players. The reason? According to P.G. Aditiya, Executive Creative Director of Dentsu Webchutney, any community (built on hobbies, interests, preferences, sexual orientation and so on) which is under-represented will find a way to get together and digital platforms which enable that will thrive. "What makes them work is the focus - a sense of purpose and the common interest that brings people together," he adds. "Users also invest their time and effort in these networks as they bring some clear benefits," says Sajith Narayanan, Adjunct Faculty (Marketing) at FLAME University. Marketers should be excited too as they can instantly access target groups.
At present, most of these niche networks are quite small, although some groups on WhatsApp have got scale. What is required now is a bunch of second-generation social media platforms which will enable like-minded people to form meaningful connections. That is the only way to succeed in this space, says Sriharsha Jhunjhunwala, a former marketer at the kitchen appliances company Stovekraft. He is currently testing a social media platform called Burb that will connect people based on their pin codes.
The idea is to bring together people living in the same neighbourhood to share information, discuss key issues or make friends. "We want Burb to connect people online to help them get social in the real world as real connections are only formed there. Online is just the beginning, not the end," he says with conviction. Could these niche platforms cultivate a meaningful social network culture, bringing back the trust and authenticity that their Big Brothers have lost somewhere on the way?