Innovation Hub: Niche Social Networks

When most people think of social networks, they think of Facebook.

But apart from Mark Zuckerberg’s behemoth, which has 1.3 billion active users at last count, we’re seeing a rise in niche-based online communities, tailored to our personal or professional interests.

Gina Bianchini is an expert on building custom social networks. She started Ning with Marc Andreessen, and is now the CEO and co-founder of Mightybell, a site for self-employed professionals.

Here’s what Bianchini told me about the next frontier for online networking, and what’s ahead for Facebook.

[This interview has been edited and condensed. For the full conversation, visit]

Kara Miller: Is there a market for social networks apart from the big guns like Facebook?

Gina Bianchini: Absolutely yes. My belief is that the most valuable networks are those where you can meet the people you should know, not the people already in your address book. That’s where the most urgent need is—for people to be able to meet each other around the things that are the most important to them, and professional identity is where that is today.

KM: How is that idea different from what LinkedIn’s already doing in the professional sphere?

GB: Take, as an example, self-employed professionals. It’s one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy. Self-employment is about creating and navigating your own job, not finding a new one. LinkedIn is phenomenal for establishing a professional reputation, and connecting people looking for jobs with recruiters.

KM: MySpace, Friendster, and Google Plus are all struggling. What is it about creating a social network that’s so hard?

GB: MySpace was ahead of its time, and Facebook improved upon it. Google Plus was too late to the market, and it was not a product that was authentically built with the goal of enabling people to do something that they couldn’t do anywhere else. The thing that new companies can look to is how to create and solve a focused, small problem that has lots of applications for the technology that is happening right now.

KM: Do you think that Facebook is concerned that people are going towards more specialized networks? Or that teenagers are increasingly using Snapchat or other apps?

GB: We are moving to a mobile world, and Facebook has been incredibly aggressive and smart with the acquisitions they have done. They are building a portfolio of successful consumer businesses, between WhatsApp and Instagram, that only makes them stronger. They have taken success in one era and have moved aggressively to where the world is going, from where it’s been.

Mikaela Lefrak contributed to this piece.

Kara Miller is the host of “Innovation Hub,” a national radio program that features the thinkers, researchers, and visionaries who are crafting the future. She is based at WGBH Radio in Boston. Follow @IHubRadio

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