A recent article in the New York Times discussed the growing popularity of new social networking sites that cater to specific religious and ethnic populations. Sites like Xianz.com and Naseeb.com have become safe havens for users who are frustrated, tired and uncomfortable with the profane and sexually explicit comments generated by users on MySpace and Facebook.
In response to such frustrations, discouraged users sometimes make the jump to cultural safe havens — some with barriers to entry. Most such social networking sites heavily monitor users' content, often limiting the language members may use. Can such closed spaces thrive in an era of MySpace?
These sites resonate with marginalized members of MySpace and Facebook who don't want to lift their shirts or raise their beer and share it with a thousand of their closest friends. Instead they seek refuge in online communities that let them share and connect with each other, in their specific kind of way.
On one hand, niche networking sites like the ones highlighted are a great example of creating venues that give users what they want, a key ingredient in a successful website. But others might see these niche sites as an example of “walled gardens,” a reference used by Jay Rosen, journalism professor at NYU and author of PressThink.
Rosen, who spoke recently at the Edelman New Media Summit confronted the perceived openness of online social networks. Sure, valuable information is shared, but only to members, or those that are part of smaller groups within the community.
Rosen contends that networking sites need to give back to the Web so that all users can benefit. A valid sentiment, especially when the dialogue focuses on religion, race or ethnicity.
Steven Rubel of Micro Persuasion, who covered the Rosen lecture at the Summit, asked questions that social networking sites, faith-based and other, might soon be asking themselves: “Can walled gardens continue to thrive in an era of openness? Can a social network be social even though so little of the community's value is visible to the outside world?”
Another perspective on this debate is presented by Danah Boyd in her article “Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace.” Boyd asserts that what social networking platform users, specifically teens, decide upon “seems to primarily have to do with socio-economic class.”
Before opening its site to everyone, users on the college track flocked to Facebook, which had a reputation of being safer because of its network controls, while all others were resigned to MySpace, which was quickly branded “dangerous and sketchy” by the media.
Whether it's a website, corner grocery store or neighborhood place of worship, patrons resonate with the familiar. Yet while catering to users is a vital function of any community, the marketers and developers who produce these online places should take time to reflect upon the broader Internet culture.
Steve Rubel argues that “over the years we have seen time and again that open systems trump closed [ones].” We're on board with that. Walled gardens — despite cases of good intentions — miss the point and by doing so are failing to participate in and take advantage of the current culture of the Web.
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