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Last Saturday, Venture Voice show producer Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell dropped in on the Community Next: The Present and Future of Online Communities conference held at Stanford University. Here are some of his musings on day:


The web’s overflow of social networking sites was a common gripe among presenters at the Community Next conference. Sitting in a crowded Stanford auditorium, where nearly everyone seemed to be talking about “their roommates’ company,” it was obvious that finding an uncharted niche is no longer enough.

We have reached a point where online communities are sprouting up for “people who like the same kind of orange juice,” joked Tara Hunt of the consulting-firm Citizen Agency. Aaron Dignan of Brandplay kicked-off the conference by showing an audience of eager online community-builders this Wikipedia page listing a glut of existing networks to make a similar point.

Matt Roche, of Offermatica, described the widget-heavy aesthetic of MySpace as the “overtaking of the internet by an 8th grade binder-craze mentality.” The “uber-networking” site (although it represents 80% of all traffic to online social networks) was the target of barbs throughout the day, held up, by most, as what not to do when starting a community–overrun a site with cumbersome logins and ubiquitous adverts.

Despite the girth of existing online social networking startups, many attendees were optimistic that their site could find and maintain a niche. Siona Vandijk of Zaadz, a relatively new community-networking portal for “people with a purpose,” said her networking site was particularly useful for rural Americans far-flung form face-to-face progressive communities. Tom, who had traveled all the way from Berlin to attend, said he was eager to launch a European-language site where adults could exchange parenting tips.

As the conference went on, it was clear that the new gold rush for digital-community is increasingly occurring on the handheld market. Jangl and mPulse were two such examples of companies blitzkrieg to offer social networking services via the mobile phone. But Mark Jacobstein of loopt delivered the most impressive presentation, showing how a cell phone can host loopt’s map application for real-time global positioning of one’s friends (cool! Although the graphics looked cribbed from MapQuest). Moreover, Jacobstein emphasized loopt’s ability to send alerts telling when friends are nearby and what they may be doing. At the same time, loopt allows users to maintain some degree of privacy since one can choose, at any given time, which friends should be allowed access to one’s whereabouts. It was unclear, however, how loopt differed from the similar and more-heavily marketed Helio (“don’t-call-it-a-phone”) service I noticed being pushed in a glass showroom, a mile away, in downtown Palo Alto. That said, the task of harmonizing any phone-networking application to work across many different service providers seemed to be the elephant in the room (and the key to whose service will ultimately prevail).

Some of the freshest, but not necessarily most lucrative, uses for online social networking concepts came later in the day during a panel dubbed, “The rise of niche social communities.” Joe Suh of presented his vision of a “Facebook for churches,” were parishioners can stay connected, share media, and alert each other to upcoming service events all on a site he promised could act as value-filter for much of the Internet’s less savory content. Premal Shah of (see Venture Voice’s recent interview with Premal) explained how online communities could be harnessed as a source of low-cost working capital to micro-entrepreneurs in the developing world. Doug Hirsch of boasted that his site hosted 600-communities drawn around the discussion of different health-related concerns.

Indieclick‘s Heather Luttrell gave an informative, no-thrills explanation of how to sell site appropriate adds, which was a pragmatic complement to the happy-go-lucky Threadless speech on “Creating Online Awesomeness and Other Cool Stuff.” Jeffrey Kalmikoff & Jake Nickell of the T-shirt site Threadless — which allows users to vote on submitted designs — offered a hilarious, albeit platitude-filled, presentation about not loosing a site’s unique character in the pursuit of profitability. During their presentation, a simple bar graph showed how the founders wanted to project their progress beginning at “sorta awesome” and sloping upward toward “crazy awesome.”

Keep an eye out for HeyCosmo, a soon-to-be released service boasting a codec which its developer claimed will allow friends to simultaneously watch the online content while sharing their reactions via multi-way video conferencing.

Here were some of my favorite quotes and bite-size insights offered by presenters at the conference:

Need an idea for a new online community? “A community for my goldfish” or a “carbon-neutral network” are still available. –Josh Spear

Check your measure of success. If you judged by a simple picture count, yahoo photos would be better than flickr. -Tara Hunt of Citizen Agency

“Niche networks are backlash against uber-community sites.” -Joe Hurd of VideoEgg (see Venture Voice coverage of their launch)

“Think like a video game.” Consider a points-based system that rewards community members for engaging. -Mike Jones of Userplane

Paid memberships often increase by introducing advertising and selling the ability to opt out. -Heather Luttrell of Indieclick

Cheers to Noah Kagan for pulling off the event.

More coverage: WiredValleywag ZDNetLaughing Squid

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