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4 ways niche social networks are predicting the future of the Web

There might be nothing new under the sun — but there’s nothing on the Internet that hasn’t been cannibalized, repurposed, remixed, mashed up or outright stolen thousands and thousands of times.

I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. I love iterative culture. I think we just plain get better stuff when everyone is building off everyone else’s work. Social media is one of the best examples of that principle at work.

Take Facebook, for example. Some people will snort and tell you that Facebook just ripped off Myspace and sent it to college. Others look back a little farther and say Mark Zuckerberg just made a stable version of Friendster — which was all the rage for about a minute in 2003. I think it actually goes back even further, to a site I was active on in the late 90’s called Bolt*, which tried to mimic the social experience of high school, with all its little cliques and interest groups. Sound familiar? And of course, there are even some exceptionally tiresome people who will try to tell you that Usenet groups were the only social network anyone could ever need, dagnabbit.

When you think about it, the idea that so many people have gone to court claiming to have invented Facebook is downright laughable. The network is a bastard child with a thousand fathers. And if you were active on social networks in those early days, almost** nothing the network did surprised you, because almost every feature had come from some other, less popular site.

And if you’re paying attention right now, you’ll see that trick still works. Google+ has video chat with social features — but so did Skype and before that the old MSN network instant messaging service. Circles lets you divide up your social presence between different groups, but last summer I told you about AllMyBiz, an unfortunately named network that was built on the same idea.

If you look at what tiny, experimental social networks are doing now, you’ll see the future of what Facebook, Google and the rest will be doing tomorrow. I don’t expect any of these social networks to be come household names — but I do believe you’ll be seeing these ideas again before too long.

Location 2.0
Checking in to my favorite burrito joint is OK, I guess. But I’m already bored by it, and I’m willing to bet many of you are too — even though most people still aren’t using location-based networks. The problem is that checking in doesn’t have much of a payoff. I don’t want to just announce my presence, I want to interact with my environment.

There are already a bunch of social tools that allow you to do this using augmented reality tools. Stickybits lets you leave geocoded information for others to discover. Historypin lets you put that information in a historical context. World of Fourcraft turned New York City into a giant game of risk and social games such as MyTown and Paranormal Activity: Sanctuary take social gaming to exciting new places — literally.

It’s only a matter of time before one of the big boys tries to get in on this action — either by building their own augmented reality features or buying up another service. Who knows, maybe Facebook could actually get Color to work properly.

Small Gardens
I know Facebook has a vision of creating a worldwide social network that everyone has a single profile on. But the truth is that a lot of people just want to connect with a network of people just like them. Social networks for kids have been huge for a while, and now even networks for our elders are starting to pop up. And some of the best social networks in the world are built around hobbies. Niche is the new mass market.

Google would just need to build on the Circles principle to give you the power to have multiple gardens under a single roof. But this could also be a handy entry point for Microsoft, or maybe a former hotshot looking for a comeback — Ning, Myspace, even AOL — could give it a shot. And having a Facebook Jr. option might be a nice way for the network to get around all the nasty consent issues that having minors on their current network raises.

Express Yourself
Twitter is great for sharing links and quips. And every other social network is a fine tool for sharing photos. But what if you want to share something else? Like a piece of artwork? Or a voice message? Or a shot-on-the-fly video? Right now you can technically post those things to Facebook, but its not an elegant process and its certainly not being encouraged. Status updates are great — I clearly love writing — but they’re not everyone’s chosen form of expression. Look for major social networks to do more to cater to users with different communication styles.

The Purpose Driven Social Network
Networks don’t have to be all fun and games. They can accomplish some pretty big things — the events in the Middle East this year settled that argument, no matter what Malcolm Gladwell thinks.

And it’s not going to stop there. Political and social causes of all stripes and philanthropic efforts are getting more social. But the same can be said for tackling personal problems such as health and financial issues. This is most radical category of them all — and probably the one you’re least likely to see the big networks emulate soon, given that Facebook Causes failed to set the world on fire. But as more people look to the social Web as a tool for getting stuff done, more networks will work to facilitate those goals. The rest is just a matter of time.

What minor trends in social networking do you suspect will go mainstream in the near future?

* Bolt is still around, sort of, in a Ning-hosted form. It’s not high school centric anymore and to be honest with you, it was never that cool. But it was 1998 and I didn’t know any better.
** I say almost, because as much as I like to dump on Facebook, Facebook Connect was pretty brilliant. Other networks may have had that idea before, but it had never been executed on that scale, because no one else had the muscle to make it happen. Does it count if you have a great idea, but can’t execute it? Not in my book.