Blackbox Republic

200907141930.jpg 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.

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SpectrumDNA and Social Media Engines

SpectrumDNA is a really neat company based in Park City, Utah that has developed substantial IP around delivering “social media engines” that are essentially branded applications that companies can use to deepen their connection with constituent groups.

Jim Banister, long time friend and all around really smart guy, has been at this for a while, long before other people started articulating these concepts, and he started the company to realize a vision that companies could engage their audiences in smart and compelling ways instead of trying to trick them into clicking on ad or into giving their personal information away. I have always been inspired by his unique blend of creative energy, industry contacts, a nose for products, and a willingness to not follow what others are doing.

When I met the rest of his team I was duly impressed with their productivity as represented by the amount of product they could churn out, support a growing roster of clients, and do it all with what would be considered a small team. When I learned more about their latest engine I was really blown away that they could build something that is both substantial and complex while at the same time growing their core business.

The first product, Addictionary, enables brands, publishers, and community owners to build and manage the lexicon that grows around successful companies and cultural themes. It’s not surprising that when given the opportunity to engage a community around language that companies can be pretty successful doing it, case in point is the Ellen Degeneres Dictionary.

The growth of Addictionary has been nothing short of impressive and not just with the quantity of user generated content being achieved but also the marquee nature of the brands lining up as clients.

It was that new product that really captured my imagination. PlanetTagger is at its core a location-based social network and the right question to ask next is “why the hell does the world need the 151st location-based social network?”. It’s a good question but not the right question, which is “why have their been no breakout success in LBSN and based on the learnings from what the other products are doing, how do you build something disruptive?”.

Jim and his team made a key observation, which is that almost all of the LBSN offerings are built around a few pivot points, the first being they are consumer grade services and the last two being somewhat connected in that they use location services for friend finding and local search. PlanetTagger is fundamentally different because it is brandable, which is consistent with broader mission of the company to build social media engines, and it uses location to facilitate affinity groups.

This gets a little complex to describe but it’s really a simple concept; everyone has 2-3 deep passions or pursuits that they engage in outside of professional and family activities. The ability to connect online with other people interested in the same pursuits is not new and if you look at forums dedicated to hobbies and interests you will see a lot of message traffic that is essentially location based, like connecting at events, or posting pictures, or “hey I’m here” messages.

I ride my motorcycle every week, summer and winter, and regularly check into the Indian Community Forum where I see message about what other Indian riders are doing… what events they are going to, pictures from rides they took, online friends that they connected with, locations for parts, service facilities, and so on. This is exactly what a location based social network should be enabling and that is what PlanetTagger is aimed at.

My friendship and respect for Jim, the capabilities of the team, the caliber of the board of directors, and the products all conspired to make for an easy decision to join Spectrum’s board of directors. I am really looking forward to seeing them develop and hope that my contributions are additive.

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