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  |   Business


Are private online communities subverting the dominance of old-school social networks?

New research shows that private online communities – known as ‘velvet rope’ groups – based around shared interests are enjoying a period of rapid growth at the same time as old-school public social networks like Facebook and Twitter are losing steam.

The report by Trust Insights points to evidence that these new social networks, including Slack and Discord, are supplanting traditional communities and making it harder for marketers to target consumers. This kind of under-the-radar contact which also includes communication channels like email, text and messaging apps, subverts digital marketing methodologies that rely on tracking the activities of online users. However, although such social networks present marketers with a challenge, it is also offering a sanctuary for those who have become jaded by the way some platforms have turned user preferences into data harvesting opportunities for big commerce.

Social media is ripe for reform

In many respects, marketers are at the heart of some of the issues plaguing social networks – including the oft-cited negative effect on teen mental health. A recent UK YouGov survey undertaken for the Prince’s Trust charity showed that happiness levels among young people have plummeted in recent years with the number who believe that life is not worth living doubling in just a decade. Around half those surveyed admitted that social media made them feel ‘inadequate’, with the majority (57%) thinking that it created ‘overwhelming pressure’ to succeed.

This growing disaffection with the influence of social networks is compounded by the increased monetisation of user data. TechCrunch ran a column last year complaining about how social media simply isn’t social anymore, as interest-based communities make way for public behemoths that reinforce negative feedback loops for their users. With social networks all chasing the big numbers, ads have become more frequent – and more manipulative, often doubling down on tactics that rely on users’ FOMO. Because social networks thrive on new content, every user is pushed to follow more people and subscribe to fresh channels, through gamification tactics and algorithm-driven recommendations that are designed to make users come back time and time again.

If it appears that we’ve reached peak social, no wonder it also feels like a good time to build informal digital spaces to share with peers who enjoy the same interests and who want to reach out without the fear of feeding data into a faceless machine.


While the major social platforms are showing a slowdown in user interest, others are shifting to niche networks to connect with like-minded people. They’re also eschewing traditional social media in favour of group-chat apps to facilitate interruption-free discussions. French start-up Yubo for example is a teen-focused community app whose 20 million (and counting) users are making the established platforms nervous.

Yubo credits this success to its live-streaming rooms, where users from all over the world can connect and interact. Unlike other social networks, Yubo does not entice users to hit metrics like likes or views, seeking instead to recreate online social environments where people meet (such as bars or college campuses).


Meanwhile over at Discord, a mutual love of video games is uniting friends and opponents alike on an instant message-type voice and text chat platform, making it the preferred channel for player communication and flagging it as a destination in its own right for millions of players. The ascendance of Discord tracks the recent rapid expansion of the video game industry as tech giants including Apple and Microsoft continue to invest in game streaming services. The exponential popularity of Fortnite – with player numbers estimated at 250 million – has helped Discord to ramp up its reach, delivering a simple and effective chat system to users across an often confusing morass of devices, leapfrogging former rival TeamSpeak along the way.


Other platforms are embracing the re-niching of social. Creative community DeviantArt was originally launched in 2000 as a skin-sharing service for media players like Winamp. Its acquisition in 2017 by website developer Wix sparked a revamp that the designers hope will help re-establish it as the de facto creative social platform for artists. The timing may well be apt – with platform fatigue setting in on communities such as Instagram, artists looking for a more focused way of displaying and promoting their work, as well as connecting with other artists, could be drawn to the purity of DeviantArt.

The platform’s redesigned Eclipse profile pages can double as portfolio sites, and, as there are no longer any ads, professionals can look to invite new sources of revenue, like brand partnerships. Perhaps it will also once again help to launch careers: Domee Shi, who recently won an Oscar for the short film Bao (2018), credited DeviantArt for connecting her with other creatives.

Moving into a new social era

Despite the global success of social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, they’re not necessarily the best fit for every user – nor for every brand in search of a customer. In fact, brands that have traditionally relied on a broad-brush approach to the major platforms may enjoy better returns by connecting with smaller, niche groups whose members share similar interests. As private online communities gain traction with people who want to regain a sense of community, so marketers can look at fresh – and potentially more honest – ways of engaging targeted audiences with benefits for all.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes.

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