My friend Sam Lawrence unveiled his latest project, Blackbox Republic on the world today. Billed as an online relationship market for the sex positive community, the site features event planning, commerce, and mobile features on top of a general social networking platform.
I will admit that when Sam first pinged me about this I thought it was an elaborate prank… “a social network for the ‘sex positive‘ community?” what my first reaction followed quickly by “is it a porn thing?” and then “okay this must be a prank and I’d better play along so as not to give him the satisfaction of punking me”. It is, it’s not, and it definitely isn’t a prank and the reason why I am telling this story is to get it out in the open because I am sure that I was not alone in my reaction nor will Sam not have to answer those questions going forward.
There are two independent threads that recently converged for me that explain why I am so intrigued by what Sam is doing. I joined the board of SpectrumDNA largely because of my belief in the white label social network for affinity groups, PlanetTagger. Jim Banister, the CEO and inspirational founder, and I had a bunch of conversations about the concept of social nicheworking as a compliment to what Facebook, Myspace and the other generalized network are doing. Let me be clear, social nicheworking is not the opposite of social networking, it’s just a more specialized variant that offers tremendous value to affinity groups, and this is what Sam is doing with Blackbox Republic. Facebook Connect comes to mind as legitimate evidence supporting the notion that these two ends of the spectrum compliment each other rather than compete.
Look around you, think about your own life… outside of family and professional interests we all have passions that we pursue. In the pursuit of these hobbies and interests we often align ourselves with other people who are like us, mostly for sharing purposes but also, in many cases, to provide economic support, whether in the form of actual commerce or events. It’s not news to anyone that tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of message forums have popped up on the web to support these groups and up until recently they have taken the form of message boards.
Where message boards stop social networks begin, not because of the much talked about social graph but because, very simply, we want to connect not just with people but people like us. Community sponsors, whether in the form of actual economic sponsors like media entities or organizers like the folks who put on Burning Man, want to have a community that enriches the experience rather than tries to shoehorn it into a grab bag of features with limited branding opportunity and no content programming capabilities.
This gets to the second epiphany that I had recently, a conversation with Kevin Marks about overlapping public spaces. Who we are in our woodworking community is the same person we are in the Indian motorcycle community and that is the same person we are in our kindergarten parents community, yet the experience in each of these communities is fundamentally different even if some of the participants overlap. At it’s core, we want to belong to publics of our peers but in each community instance we define our peers differently while defining ourselves the same.
Social nicheworking is at it’s core about overlapping public spaces and a rich community experience as a function of the community participants having a lot of control over how the community behaves, both technically and socially. While you may disregard Blackbox as some kooky sex community thing, the underlying concepts that Sam is tapping are exceptionally powerful and will define the next generation of social networking experiences that emerge more broadly across the industry of providers doing this stuff and more importantly among the communities embracing them. The community platforms will be at the core of go to market strategies for brand advertisers and service providers who want to tap into the economic potential that every affinity group possesses, and technology providers are going to have to provide services that are intrinsically connected with content, whether syndicated or user generated.