Niche networks // Neocha: China’s MySpace for the Creative People

While busy at work, I saw two of my ETC colleagues (student assistants) checking out Facebook so I chatted with them about social networks, specifically on what they used them for.

What are we really doing in Facebook?
Interestingly, instead of trying to spend time creating a more impressive profile than their peers, they seemed to be more interested in looking (or spying) at what their friends are doing. To top that off, I also saw how one of them went as far as dropping their real-life persona in favor of a pseudonym on Facebook. While this isn’t news to most of us, it does make me wonder if some better design could be incorporated in such social networks to accommodate this behavior.

Putting the “Social” in Social Networks
Facebook does so with the mini-newsfeed of your friends (see Fearmongering Facebook’s News Feed…), LiveJournal started the friends blog aggregation some time ago, while Vox did so quite well and improved on the idea with their QotD: Question of the Day feature which bring all kinds of Vox users together, thus truly mixing and socializing them. In essence, we need services that facilitate being in touch with friend according, or even to the extent of recommending other (e.g. Last.fm recommends music and “neighboring” friends!).

The Economics of Lurking
It’s incredible how much time people spend everyday in social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. Perhaps most of us enjoy sharing ourselves with others, while some of us are simply wary of it and prefer to lurk. Lurking isn’t “free” in most of these networks, requiring you to invest your time in joining in, creating a profile and adding friends. Before you know it, the trade-off happens… you watch others, just as others can watch you. Truth is reinforced when your identity online is verified by friends who leave testimonials or write on your wall. It’s a pretty fair game.

Your time in Facebook = Free Labor
For me, I’d rather do share under my own space such as my blog where I have more control and ownership over my identity and content. Personally, I use social networks just to maintain presence with my friends, where they can search for me and feel comfort in knowing that I’m show up in their search results. For instance, I believe that I’m a great friend simply because show up when I’m needed, be it in real life (offline) or online. I don’t really spend too much time in these networks because I have this feeling that my effort is really benefitting someone else… in this case Facebook. While the cost benefit makes it worthwhile for most people to spend a lot of time “working for” these commercial spaces, other like me who are able to create our own online space might be inclined to do so in our own terms (e.g. our own blogs).

Trebor’s “Participation on the Social Web”
So, are we really giving away free labor to these social networks? Incidentally, researchers are asking the same question. Artist and media theorist, Trebor Scholz, is really (really) curious about participatory behavior online. His interest has led him to begin writing a book which critically addresses the ethics of the sociable web. You can find out more about his work online, but more importantly, he’s inviting everyone to participate in a relatively short survey to help with his book.

Still unhappy with our current social networks?
Friendster and MySpace are really messy (though nicely hackable) to me, and Facebook has lost the exclusive vibe that it once had for the academic crowd, since it opened its doors to everyone. In fact, Robert Scoble thinks so too, but his reason is that all the social networks simple takes up too much time. He noted also how Facebook has turned into a modern day rolodex for finding business contacts, and I’ve seem to have read somewhere that some have also made business deals via Facebook. Joi Ito noted the same affordance years ago when he likened World of Warcraft to the new golf. Thing is, if Facebook is where companies are going, how did LinkedIn get left out?

Make it Niche, Make it Damn Easy
That’s where I thought “niche social networks” should enter and hold value by being really quick to use (functional), while being extremely relevant and fiercely exclusive (e.g. offering services specific to the relevant crowd). As fragmented it would turn the social networking scene, it would serve as the long tail, catering to the smaller but passionate group of users. For instance, Estee of blogbuzz.tv recently pinged me about a social networking site for professional women cleverly called Damsels in Success. While I only took a superficial look at it, I was more intrigued by how social networking sites like these weren’t about having huge populations of users (quantitative), but rather solid relevance to specific mobs of interests (qualitative).

Heard of Neocha (it’s actually a vulgar wordplay)?
When my ETC colleagues happened to talk about how ugly MySpace was, I then pointed out Virb, a MySpace clone for designers. ETC student assistant and media artist, BingXia (as seen in video above), chimed in with Neocha, which was China’s own MySpace for creative people as well. She complains that it isn’t popular, since there’s less people on it than MySpace. I beg to differ… the value lies in how you aren’t in a huge community of strangers, but of close friends you can actually do stuff with.

Update: The Big Switch has more thoughts on China’s Online Creative Community…

  • nuMentally

    It was pretty much “blah blah blah…” until I heard “I don’t use a Mac, I’m a PC person.”

  • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin

    Yeah, who do all these PC users think they are? Hertz? :P

  • http://www.priscillatan.com Priscilla

    i can probably tell you my views over other communications platforms later but since you wrote that you rather invest time in the blog, i shall make the comments here. :)

    The points on The Economics of Lurking and Your time in Facebook = Free Labor are very valid. Lurking is definitely not free, one of my colleagues’ facebok page is on the entire time she’s at work. It’s somewhat an obsession for her.

    With Scoble and your reminder, i shall not spend too much time lurking (and my blog kept going down these few days) so, I am going to invest more time on my “first life” – reading books, instead of updating facebook! heh

    Great post!!!

  • http://bitbot.wordpress.com Bitbot

    I guess the obsession people have with Facebook is that for one its public and the more active your profile is, the more it gives others the impression that you have an active social life (even though it may be the opposite in real life). I have friends who just add anyone they “sort of” know on Facebook to look like they have lots of friends.

    Also, something a bit off topic but have you heard of Arsebook? http://www.arsebook.org I have not tried it out in fear that its filled with spyware (thanks to its red colour) but it is supposingly a social networking site for people you hate. Talk about running out of ideas for niche groups.

  • byu

    You mac racists. Mac is totally nazi…and this perfectly leads to Andrew Keen’s argument about 90 percent of online arguments end up with accusation of fascism…

    And no. If SNSs are particularly noticed of using free labor I will say the whole internet is. It’s not like Google doesn’t make money or anything.

    Btw am I providing content for your blog, say, a labor of yours? (Just joking).

  • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin

    @Priscilla: Thanks, but do feel free to disagree with me :)

    @Bitbot: Besides social networks, the same goes for blogs… some people I’ve met seem to have an impression that I’m an internet celebrity of sorts. It’s the blog taking a life of its own, not me (ha!) I did hear about the “enemy-facebook”, which seems to be a trend since fiendster.com :P

    @Byu: Hope you’re in on the joke… it’s techno-discrimination over racial-discrimination. Andrew Keen has some valid points (not all), which serves as the zen in this Web 2.0 craziness. I think the issue about free labor comes up when we compare a user’s personal utility in SNS vs. the SNS owners (e.g. Google). I might compare it to eBay where eBay is a platform while buyers and sellers interact, paying eBay transaction fees several times (e.g. listing, selling, paypal-ing). My question here is, is it simply win-win for all? I’ll be thinking this while listening to Trebor, who incidentally will be running a class this semester on “The Social Web: What went wrong with Web 2.0“.

  • http://www.neocha.com Sean

    Hi Kevin,

    Great post and video!

    One interesting theory that may be relevant for your analysis is that of participation inequality where it is believed 1% of users produce content, 10% interact with it (comment, tag, etc.) and 89% just “lurk” and view the content. While the exact percentages change for every website, I think the fundamental idea is probably true on most networks.

    I also think niche social networks is a trend that will be very successful in the future because of the quality over quantity argument you point out. And from a business point of view, niche sites tap into passionate users who may be willing to pay for premium services as well as offer sophisticated advertisers a targeted demographic.

    As one of the founders of Neocha, I also wanted to chime in on a few points on your video. First of all, please thank Bingxia for showing you Neocha- it’s fun for us to see our website being used in the US. While she got most everything right, there were a couple points I wanted to clear up:

    1) None of us has worked or knows anyone at Myspace and as far as I know, MySpace has not opened up their source code. Our site was made from scratch in Shanghai. I think SNS technology (blog, friending, pictures, etc.), is all pretty much a technological commodity at this point.

    The big social networking sites (myspace, facebook in the US; 56.com, MOP in China) are pretty established. Going back to the niche network idea, I think new entrants to the space will need to differentiate themselves via strongly branded vertical websites that focus on specific demographics. For us, it’s creative communities in China.

    2) Neocha was launched in mid April of 2007, so we’ve been out for just over 4 months. If you’re interested, here is a video of our launch party: http://youtube.com/watch?v=F3dDIBEzz6E

    3) While we have met some people who refer to Neocha with the somewhat vulgar Chinese translation, the standard translation is actually “New Tea” or ?? ?

    Thanks again for the post and interesting analysis of social networks.

    Sean

    (sean@neocha.com)

  • byu

    I apologize to Sean about any mistakes I’ve made. I heard things but never verified any. And somebody pointed me to your testing site on January so I just assumed the time. Whatever. I didn’t have time to think since kevin just pulled out his camera towards me in like a second……

    To kevin about if it is the win-win situation. I will ask about Trebor’s opinion tomorrow I see him but,I’ve been reading some performance theory talking about passivity (e.g. lurking)is what most audience actually wants. Seems just loosely related to what we are talking about here.

    About the mac/pc thing there is just nothing more than a joke. I mean if a product promotes an attitude of its own it’s fine. But being a consumer sticking with the so called apple attitude, it’s just too typical of the consumer psychology they created for you. I don’t like feeling controlled and I’m using a good sony vaio laptop. You guys do whatever you want…

  • http://theory.isthereason.com Kevin

    @Sean: A beauty about blogging is the ability to leave the last word (as infinite as it may be). I’m learning much.

    @byu: I have a Vaio too. Does that make me bi-techno-sexual?

  • http://www.neocha.com Sean

    @byu: Please don’t apologize! We were all stoked to see someone using the site in the US and then find it on YouTube, so thank you!

    @Kevin: I agree- blogging is as much about the conversation (and often more so) than the original posting. Thanks again for the post!