by: Matt Rhodes

It seems that everybody is talking about Facebook today. And not about who they’ve poked or pictures from a party last weekend. They’re talking about Facbook fatigue, a concept first reported in the Times and then picked up across the media and blogs.

There is much more about this topic at Social Media Influence, Tamar, WebCommunityForum and others, so I won’t talk about that in much detail here. Rather I think that this reporting is a sign of a bigger trend in the use of online communities, and one that is not completely unexpected - a shift from mass social networks to niche online communities.

Facebook began life as an ultra-niche online community. When I was at university we were each given an A2 poster with a picture of everybody in our year, their name and email, phone extension and course: the Table of Faces as we called it. Facebook was really jsut an online version of this when it was first developped. It then opened up across campuses in the US and slowly across universities in the UK and beyond. The rapid growth reported in 2007 (700% growth in users year-on-year) came when Facebook was opened up for anybody with an email address to join. The nice campus-based online community had grown to become a global social network.

There is a process with any innovation where it becomes adopted first by the people who invent it and then by a small group of people who probably hear about it by word of mouth - these are called ‘early adopters’. Then as the innovation becomes more embedded more people use it, although they still feel part of a niche community - still a relatively small set of people who share a common bond. They are all using a new technology before the majority of people around them. When something reaches a mass market appeal things change. It is no longer a new and exciting product. People who use it are no longer part of a minority - they can no longer define themselves as being part of the product. The community feeling is starting to decline. When this happens it isn’t the end of the innovation - it just means it has reached maturity. Rather what you see in these cases is that the original continues to grow and embed itself in society; but some people leave. The innovators and early adopters look for something new. People who liked the community feel go and look for it elsewhere.

This is exactly what is happening to Facebook. It has matured and become a part of people’s lives - I wouldn’t dream of not posting photos from holidays on facebook, and my friends use it as a collective organiser. It now has mass market appeal and has lost its innovative appeal. Whilst there is no doubt that Facebook will continue to be popular and grow people are looking for the next thing in social media. As NevilleHobson notes, the analyst behind the report that talks about the decline in Facebook usage also predicts what this might be: niche social networks.

Facebook was originally niche - it targetted people based on membership of organisations (universities). The new niche online communities will be more sophisticated, based on interests or lifestyles; solving problems or self help. There is evidence of this already. Innovators and early adopters are now part of online communities especially for expectant mothers (Netmums) and Horsesmouth, a peer support and mentoring online community, launched a couple of weeks ago.

We predict that this year will see the rise of such networks. People want to be part of an online community where they feel they have something to contribute and where they can gain something in return. They want to be in communities where they have something in common with other members. They want to enter into a two-way engagement. If you offer them this opportunity they’ll flock to take part.

This year will see new, niche online communities cropping up at a rate we haven’t seen before in areas and interests we can’t predict.

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