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Let a Thousand Networks Bloom

October 9, 2008 

News that the American Bowling Congress will launch a social network arrived last week, raising the question of whether this social networking thing has gone just a little too far. There are, after all, nearly 2,700 social networks on the Internet according to Go2Web20.net. Facebook and MySpace together command over 85% of social networking traffic, so what’s the point of starting another?

This is just the beginning, folks.The boring job of picking the social network winners is already done, and now the action shifts to the small communities where innovation can really flourish.

I’ll give you one example. About two years ago, my wife Dana and I took up geocaching. It’s a global game that uses global positioning satellites (GPS) technology to create a worldwide treasure hunt. Players use handheld GPS receivers to find containers full of trinkets placed by other enthusiasts in locations ranging from city street corners to remote mountaintops. People log their finds on a website and try to make up elaborate clues for others to unravel.

Dana and I became so captivated by this game and the culture that has grown up around it that we decided to write a book about it. In the process of interviewing some of the most active and successful geocachers in the world, we’ve come upon some remarkable stories.

People have told us that geocaching has brought their families together, introduced them to new friends and reinvigorated their lives. One man credited the game with helping him shed 150 pounds and give up smoking. Several have said it saved their marriages. One disabled war veteran even told me geocaching gave him a reason to live at a time when he was contemplating suicide.

The online street corner for caching enthusiasts is a website called geocaching.com. This is where people can log their discoveries and share their stories. People go there to seek out others and start relationships that may develop online or in one of more than 100 local geocaching clubs around the U.S.

There are probably a couple of million people who love to geocache. That number is a rounding error on MySpace’s member list, but for active geocachers, it’s a lifeline so strong that enthusiasts often put their personal safety in the hands of other geocachers they’ve never even met. It’s a perfect example of a micro community.

There are two points to this story. The first is that small communities tend to be more engaged than large ones. The more time and effort someone has invested in learning a craft, skill or sport, the more passionate he or she is likely to be about it. People at Communispace,a company that manages private communities for corporate customers, tell me that they advise their clients to break up communities into smaller subgroups once their membership surpasses a few hundred. Think of it: No one is particularly passionate about Facebook, but they may be very engaged with communities within Facebook. Small is beautiful.

Secondly, the folks at Geocaching.com didn’t set out to organize an existing community. They created the community. It was almost impossible for people to play the game until a resource existed to coordinate their efforts. This is a great example of the Internet actually enabling special interests to flourish.

Have social networks gone too far? On the contrary, they haven’t gone nearly far enough.

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