Massive ad-based general purpose social networks aren’t the fast-growing dairy cows they once were, as Facebook’s recent “growth” numbers suggest. Many consumers, it turns out, prefer to spend their time watching short videos rather than sharing memes and pressing “Like” buttons. And new restrictions on user tracking have made it harder for mass-market social networks to target ads.
The founders of a new social network called niche believe that the next generation of social networks can target online communities shaped around more specific interests, such as hobbies or creative businesses.
“I think the first set of social networks was to connect everyone en masse – it’s your high school friends, your family; it is a very large strip of connection and [with] very little in common,” said Niche CEO Christopher Gulczynski, one of the co-founders, credited with inventing Tinder’s “swipe” feature when he worked at the dating app company. “But I think the trend in social networking right now is to get smaller, to get more intimate around that relational status of everyone in the group.”
So on the Niche app, which became available on the App Store on Tuesday, you would find groups formed around rock climbing or around people who like to gather Star Wars memorabilia. Ultimately, Niche will host groups based on many different things, including music artists and corporate events.
Importantly, Niche will not make money by showing ads to people in the groups, emphasizes CTO Zaven Nahapetyan, the other co-founder, who was a senior engineering manager at Facebook for many years. Rather, Niche is set up in such a way that the platform makes money when it helps creators make money, or when it helps users find valuable content for creators.
“We want an app where our revenue comes from the value that people produce, whether that’s digital content an artist or musician sells, or value from certain communities,” says Nahapetyan. “For example, you have different types of professional networks [or] fan clubs, people trying to organize events or plan things.”
Since creating and exchanging valuable things is central to using Niche, the founders are building their social platform on top of the blockchain. They believe that setting up communities as decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) on the blockchain creates an economic system through which members own, control and monetize the content they create.
Niche is built with NEARa layer one blockchain technology that allows Niche to issue ownership tokens to people who join a specific community. It also allows creators, such as artists or writers or musicians, to issue NFTs that represent their work, which group members can buy and resell. Since a DAO is a smart contract, the financial tokens created and exchanged on the platform can be structured in such a way that Niche gets a small fraction of the revenue.
But, explains Nahapetyan, a lot of the blockchain stuff will happen in the background and community members don’t need to be Web3 experts to use it. “We make it really easy to set up a DAO and add new people in a way that people don’t realize it’s a DAO,” he says.
When you join a club on Niche, the platform gives you a token that represents your ownership of a fraction of the group. “It’s literally just a text link you get, and you click on it and you go through the signup flow in the app,” says Nahapetyan. The token costs nothing and the app creates a free wallet in the background where the token is stored.
Nahapetyan and Gulczynski believe that groups will become more valuable as they add more members and more content over time.
“The idea is that you start these groups and as they become more popular or in demand, the value goes up, especially if there is a steady supply,” says Nahapetyan. “And so maybe this 200-person rock climbing group is going to be really hot, and everyone wants to join in — then the people who came in early can go into the open market and sell their tokens for a higher price.”
Niche isn’t the first social network to organize communities around creator content. Mighty Networks, for one, is designed on the same general principle. But Niche seems unique in using the blockchain as the foundation for the economy that underpins the network.
The ultimate success of Niche depends on the creators and whether they are attracted to the new platform. Many creators use specialized platforms, such as Substack and Patreon, to market their content. They also use common networks like YouTube and Instagram, which, as Gulczynski points out, weren’t originally built with creators’ needs in mind.
If Niche proves effective in matching creators with paying consumers, it could gain traction. The app does create a social chart to track users’ interests, but to introduce creators and content to them, not target them with ads.
“[We’re] basically coding an interest graph and then [we] link people to that graph in a very intelligent way,” says Gulczynski. “We can do the same with content creators at the back and go to [them] and say ‘Okay, we have X number of groups with X more people in them looking for content creators.’”
Niche, which now has 10 employees with offices in LA and New York City, just closed a $1.8 million “pre-seed” round led by MetaWeb, with some follow-up funding from Alumni Ventures Group. It also received a grant from its blockchain partner, the NEAR Foundation.