clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Will Niche Social Networks Save Us From All-Encompassing Online Networks, or Just Replace Them?

Smaller apps designed for specific purposes are on the rise as many people tire of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. What makes communities like AllTrails, Untappd, Runkeeper, and more so popular—and will they ever outgrow what makes them great?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

People are unsatisfied with the larger social web, and there are plenty of reasons. Platforms have been invaded by parents, the aftermath of the 2016 election is anything but over, and privacy concerns are at an all-time high. And in these highly contentious online times, it feels like there is no option but to be on Facebook, Instagram, and, for some of us, even Twitter; these platforms are no longer simple, fun distractions from the real world. They’re necessary communication tools and business venues. They’ve also all changed wildly from their first-generation selves; Facebook was for college kids, Instagram was for posting photos, Twitter was for talking about what kind of soup you had for lunch. Now, they’re all-encompassing do-everything machines that all look increasingly alike as they borrow and copy the features of their competition.

In this sea of sameness (and disappointment), the niche social network has become a respite. Apps like Yonder (for outdoor travelers), Untappd (for beer drinkers), AllTrails (for hikers), and Runkeeper (for … runners) are homes to very specific communities. I’ve spent countless hours tracking and analyzing my runs in Runkeeper, and I have AllTrails to thank for directing me toward many of my hikes. When I use these apps, I use them for a specific reason, and I immediately benefit from that time spent—and that feels very different from the way I use networks like Facebook and Twitter, which have become sort of a mindless way to kill a few minutes. The Ringer’s own Riley McAtee is a devoted Untappd user. “I’ve been using Untappd for years,” he said. “It’s really helped me keep organized as I explore new beers and breweries. And when my friends log a beer I haven’t seen before, it can help me discover new stuff.” I have another friend who’s so motivated by her Nike+ Run Club app that she’ll log unnecessary miles she doesn’t want to run just so she can beat others logging in trying to do the same.

And not all the evidence of niche apps’ growing popularity is anecdotal. AllTrails now claims 7 million users; that’s up from 200,000 in 2012. Untappd had 1 million users in 2014, and 3.2 million in 2016. Runkeeper boasted some 50 million users in 2017. One reason communities are gathering in these places and not, say, in a Facebook group, is due to a general dissatisfaction with larger platforms. “[Smaller apps] have some new appeal right now because of some things going on with the big social networks,” said Scott Campbell, a professor of telecommunications and communication studies at the University of Michigan. “Obviously with the election we’re really worried about trolling and bots on Facebook and on Twitter, and those things are easier managed and controlled in a smaller network. I also think with privacy, people are just not trusting, especially of Facebook, anymore. They lost trust.”

“People are sick of algorithms, sick of News Feed manipulation, in some cases sick of mood manipulation,” Campbell said. While no social app is totally free of algorithms, the scale and effect is far smaller on niche apps. But arguably most compelling is the sort of use these apps encourage. Facebook and its ilk have increasingly become lean-back experiences—platforms you participate in only passively. You lurk and you “like.” But the specificity of something like Untappd or AllTrails requires an initial level of interest past “this is where people are posting things,” and that translates into more active users and more vibrant online communities. While Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat can feel directionless, smaller apps have purpose. Many of them encourage interaction in real life versus online.

Sandra Cortesi, the director of youth and media at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, understands this sort of more focused use. “You go [to niche social apps] because you want to deeply connect. You go because you have something in mind that you want to do and accomplish,” she said. “You go with a desire to connect with a specific kind of community.” Still, she points out that big networks have their advantages, namely for when users want to reach large groups of people for things like protesting or mobilizing.

Part of why niche social networks are even part of the conversation is because we now have an internet that works and functions very differently than it used to. Facebook began as part of the internet, a place for college kids to continue their social lives from their dorm rooms—but now, Facebook arguably is the internet for many people, an amorphous platform that does everything (or at least tries to). Campbell says that during the earlier days of the social web, “We weren’t able to identify anything as a niche social network because we didn’t have anything to compare them to. … People are just much more aware of them because we now have a landscape that we now understand.”

It’s not as if niche social apps have replaced Facebook and Instagram for me. I still spend more time than I’d like to admit mindlessly scrolling through these respective feeds. But the time I spend there is just that: mindless. I don’t go in search of anything specific and I don’t find any specific benefit. I get the vague, worthless validation from likes and liking, but more often than not, I don’t go to these places for information, or to share something particular. I consume without creating, the opposite of the experience curated in apps like Runkeeper or AllTrails.

While the timing couldn’t be better for them right now, niche social networks are not new. They predate the internet … and electricity. A study published in the Annual Review of Sociology studied how and why such communities form and found, however obvious, that “similarity breeds connection.” This concept is called homophily, and it’s what helps bind groups of similar people together on and offline. “A pattern as powerful and pervasive as the relationship between association and similarity did not go unnoticed in classical Western thought,” the paper explained. “In Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Nicomachean Ethics, he noted that people ‘love those who are like themselves.’ Plato observed in Phaedrus that ‘similarity begets friendship.’”

The paper goes on to explore how homophily can isolate people from those who aren’t enough like them—an effect seen in online communities and one that has been much discussed following the 2016 election. The benefit of niche social networks is that they allow people to find others with the same specific interests, but could they also be reinforcing the same ideas, making those online bubbles even smaller? It’s certainly possible, says Campbell—but it really depends on whether people are totally giving up big social networks for smaller ones. Campbell doesn’t think that’s happening—and judging by the numbers, it’s not.

While there are plenty of cons to the bigger social platforms, they have become online town squares. Or at least, they have the potential to act that way; it’s up for debate how well they’re accomplishing that goal. “I’m not convinced that the kind of diverse perspectives [being communicated] on Facebook is constructive,” Campbell said. “I don’t know if it’s any worse civically that people are turning to niche social networks.” In other words, the discourse happening on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere is at such a pitch that sacrificing it for smaller circles may not be that big of a loss.

Cortesi isn’t too concerned that niche social networks will reinforce online perspective bubbles because most people have more than one interest, so they’ll be motivated to use a handful of apps. “Because they are smaller and more specific, [these social networks] will never cover all your needs, only certain needs,” she said. “So you need to diversify the types of platforms you use.” There is another benefit Cortesi sees, though. The bigger, more holistic, more generic platforms are all well and good for users’ more generic needs, but smaller, niche networks offer users a place they are more comfortable expressing a certain interest or side of their personality. If all your Facebook friends would find your constant updates about hiking obnoxious, you’re unlikely to share them there. Luckily, there’s a place for exactly that—AllTrails.

AllTrails is a very specific space. It helps users find hiking and running trails in their area, and also hosts discussions and recordings of users’ adventures, and it’s enjoying impressive growth. “For the last few years our community has grown by around 50 percent a year, and we are definitely seeing that pace accelerate,” AllTrails chief marketing officer Ron Schneidermann said. Schneidermann attributes the increasing rate of growth to adding more globally, but also to something of an online attitude shift. “I think a lot of people are rethinking the amount of time they spend on the big social media platforms. It’s not necessarily just about privacy concerns,” he said. “All of the negativity and hostility that’s in your face when you’re just trying to kill time scrolling through a news feed makes it way less fun to spend time on those sites. What we used to think of as communities now feel noisy and angry and kind of a little scary.” People are pulling away from these arenas, he says, and reallocating that time into smaller, interest-based places.

Commercial success for an app is defined by its MAUs and DAUs, of course, and AllTrails is certainly enjoying its new users. But getting too big could be problematic for niche social networks. “The catch-22 is becoming too successful,” Campbell said. “You don’t want them to become too commercially successful and popular because that would ruin it. They would no longer be what they are; it’s what differentiates them from the big ones.” There are very good examples of simple apps becoming complicated ones: Twitter started as a app focused on brevity—now it streams TV, among many other features. Instagram was for posting square, filtered photos—now it has live video. Snapchat had “disappearing” photos, and then it went ahead and created a user interface so complicated, it scared users off. Many apps begin as simple, focused places, and as they grow, they build on addition after addition until the original footprint is hardly recognizable. Schneidermann isn’t worried about that happening to AllTrails. “We think that as long as we can keep our core values of inclusivity, authenticity, and reliability, growth just means spreading those values more widely rather than somehow diluting the experience for the most active or hardcore users.”

Despite dissatisfaction with big social networks and increased interest in smaller ones, Campbell doesn’t think what’s happening is some large-scale revolution in the online space. “We might see an intensification of [smaller social networks]. I think people might become more focused on them and less on Facebook, but social media users aren’t married to one platform. Their usage just might become more intensified in this landscape,” he said. But, as he pointed out, you don’t necessarily want to see them rise too much anyway.