Scouting Micro Social Networks

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Social networks, such as MySpace and Facebook, have reinvented the way we communicate with each other, gather information and determine "friend" status. In the last three years, the major social networks have taken their place among the top Internet destinations, displacing traditional Web portals in the process.

But if you combine the market share of MySpace and Facebook among U.S. Internet users, their aggregate share only accounts for almost half of all visits to the Hitwise Social Network category. What about the other half? There are 4,713 other sites within that category, which account for the remaining market share. Diving into the rest of the social network pile reveals just how niche some of these hubs have become.

Getting beyond those mainstream networks with millions of users reveals sites that cater to specific interests and probably one that connects to you. I loved my matchbox car collection as a kid and I see that there's an online forum dedicated to Hot Wheels hobbyists: Mattel's official site hotwheelscollectors.com. I might be up for some regression. And that neighborhood kid who blew up one of my prized cars with fireworks? He might be found at the rotteneggs.com, a social network site dedicated to sophomoric practical joke enthusiasts.

If MySpace and Facebook are like broadcast networks, narrow-focused online cliques such as fixya.com (devoted to tech support and fix-it-yourself junkies) and smokingpassions.com (a social network and dating site devoted to smokers) are like the arcane cable channels in the three digits that, late at night, I might find myself watching for no good reason. Is there a market for these niche sites, and if so, who will go to them?

To answer that question, I turned to the Hitwise database and searched through the 4,700-plus sites for those that had visitors that matched my demographics. Having just reached 42, I wasn't surprised that MySpace and Facebook weren’t on top of the list for my age group; after all, I still haven't figured out the purpose or proper response to a Super Poke. Top of the list for a 34-44 year-old living in the suburbs with similar interests to me is the grown-up social network called gather.com, which is sort of like a slow-going, pared-down Facebook.

To see if the average Gather user really does represent me, I took a peek at the search terms driving traffic to the site. According to Hitwise, over the last four weeks, visitors to the site were searching for "pimento cheese spread," "bonsai trees" and Elliot Spitzer's wife "Silva Spitzer." While I do confess to a brief bonsai connection, the rest of the search term list leaves me cold. This is someone's niche, but not mine.

That Gather doesn't speak to me isn't really a worry. I have over 4,000 more to try out. And that Hot Wheels site is still waiting.

Bill Tancer is general manager of global research at Hitwise.