Like many aspiring musicians looking to get attention, Derek Simmons has a page on MySpace.com (NWS ) and posts his music videos on YouTube (GOOG ). But lately the main online home for his part-time hip-hop passion is his own personal social-networking site. He created it using Ning, a service co-founded by former Netscape Communications Corp. whiz kid Marc Andreessen that gives people more control over the look of their site and the way they share photos, videos, and other material. "I can dress it up so it's my own," says Simmons, a 43-year-old state worker in Orange, N.J., whose Ning site has gotten 12,000 views since he put it up two weeks ago. "It's a-l-l-l-l me."
Move over, MySpace. Just as the big online social networks are branching out, trying to reach an audience broader than teens and Gen Y, a raft of upstarts hopes to reach these same prospects. To attract older or less tech-savvy folks, they're offering ever-more-targeted services that can be personalized to people's existing social groups and interests. "We're empowering anybody to create branded, personal social networks," says Ning Chief Executive Gina Bianchini.
FOLLOWING THE HERDIt's the dawning of online social networking's cable-television era. Starting in the late 1970s, the spread of cable channels such as Home Box Office (TWX ), Nickelodeon (VIA ), and MTV started to slice and dice TV programming up into niches attractive to viewers and advertisers. Now there's a similar explosion of niche social-networking sites. They range from karaoke and photography communities on Multiply to canine sites on Dogster and community TV-style personal video sites and mothers' groups created using do-it-yourself services such as Ning and PeopleAggregator.
The big question is whether these sites, which depend largely on advertising for revenues, can overcome the awesome momentum of such leaders as News Corp.'s (NWS ) MySpace, with 130 million users and 8 million more each month, and Facebook, with 12 million people. If most of your friends are already flocking to those sites, you don't have much choice but to follow them if you want to participate.
The new services are aimed at time-starved people more interested in enriching existing relationships and interests than finding loads of new friends. Katherine Sukel belongs to MySpace because the U.S. military wives' group in Germany, where her husband is stationed, has a page. But, she adds, "I hate it. Nothing's private." So for everything else, such as sharing baby photos with friends and relatives, she has her own personal network page on Multiply.com, which she checks three or four times a day.
The incumbents aren't standing still, though. Facebook is branching out from its college roots to business and regional groups. "There is always the opportunity for niche markets," says Melanie Deitch, Facebook's director of marketing. "But people are savvy, and they're going to stick to those that are doing it well."
By Robert D. Hof