A startup idea has recently crept into my head which is basically a social networking site aimed at a specific interest group.
The rough concept would be a somewhat cut down version of facebook, but with a few well designed features that would be of use to the interest group (I think this bit is key and admittedly without specifics it is difficult to evaluate the idea).
The idea being that they would use the site for sharing/discussing things related to their interest, which would not really be suitable for posting on Facebook (i.e. would be irrelevant to most of their friends).
Now, I know this must be a pretty bad idea that has probably been done to death, but right now I can't really see why?
Any thoughts greatly appreciated!
Pick a niche, any niche: firearms... quilting... electronic cigarettes. Whatever. Chances are, there is already one or more established websites out there.
Take board games for example: there's BoardGameGeek. Is it a "social network"? I guess... it's been around forever (10 years) and is basically a super-hacked forum that has all sorts of features relavent to board games. It's not pretty, but the content and community (all important aspects of social networks, I think) are solid.
So, you have to consider two things.
If you can overcome those, then go for it.
If you're part of that interest group, and you see the gap, then go on and fill it. You'll benefit yourself and others, wherever the opportunity leads you.
If not, then deep research is a must. Find the places (on line and real world) where people with that interest connect, and get evidence of frustration. That's not the easiest task if, as you suggest, people with that interest may not raise it much online. But you need to get to know your target market well, and connect with some insiders.
If the need seems real, and the gap seems real, then you can take encouragement from the vast number of specialist groups who have their own, many and varied online social spaces. You get to offer a great 2011 solution in your untapped market.
Then think hard about your minimum viable product. Maybe that's 'facebook lite.' Or maybe it's a facebook page. Or maybe it's a newsletter signup. Or maybe it's a blog. Or a ning group. Or a Q&A site.
The key tests for you are: can you reach people with this interest? And when you reach them, what's most effective in getting them onboard?
For what it's worth, my observation is that people with deep interests in specialist areas will value sites that they feel arise from that community very highly indeed. And for all its success in connecting people en masse facebook has consistently gone broad rather than deep in all but a very few categories.
That doesn't guarantee you success, but it does give you a flying start as you can view facebook as a great educator informing your target group of the value and methods of engaging online, so that when they find your more finely purposed space they will be confident in giving it a try.
Good luck, if you decide to back your hunch!
A good tool for something like this is a framework like Social Engine - and I'm sure there are others - it's very Facebook-like. An example of what you're talking about is a company whose offices are next to mine - Train Life (you have to sign up to see the "social" aspects). It's a social network for model train enthusiasts. They post pictures of their model trains, videos of the trains running around on their layouts, talk about trains, etc.
Keep in mind that it took Facebook quite a while before they figured out how to make money and I think a lot of that didn't really come together until they had such a huge audience that the platform became very valuable, although a targeted niche could have some interesting advertising possibilities I suppose.
Here is a good read on social networks from Mark Suster: http://techcrunch.com/2010/12/03/social-networking-past/ AOL, Compuserve, etc were all about connecting people together. 1st article in a three part series.
When people talk about social networks today everybody thinks myspace or facebook but as has already been pointed out there are hundreds. There are even services to reserve your user name across all these new social networks.
In addition to what people generally think of as social networks there is Yahoo Groups and many, many forums like www.gemologyonline.com for people interested in gemstones.
StockTwits is a new social network for investing.
So niche social networks have been around forever but...I personally think this is an area that has a lot of potential IF you focus on a topic. Again I'll point out Howard Lindzon and Stocktwits as a great example.
Here is another article on Squidoo - http://www.squidoo.com/create-a-social-networking-site In summary, been done before but room for more.