Reddit, Quarantine and the Problem with Vague Policies

Since its creation ten years ago, Reddit has been one of the most liberal social media/networking sites when it comes to moderating unacceptable content; while Facebook has very strict rules around what you can post and what you can’t, Reddit’s general approach has always been “everything except child pornography, spam and personal information is fine”. This incredibly liberal approach caused Reddit to come under fire as a hotbed for extreme racism and misogyny;  top level employees left the site in droves, as its sheer size and sprawl made the site increasingly difficult to manage and maintain.

redditJust over a month ago, new CEO and site founder Steve Huffman proposed a new content policy. This new policy bans illegal content, harassment and bullying, the publication of other people’s private information, and anything that might incite harm or violence against other people (on top of the existing ban on spam and sexual content featuring minors); anything that would be considered “adult content” must be tagged NSFW (not safe for work). On top of this, content which violates “a common sense of decency” is to be quarantined, meaning users must log in and opt-in to see the content. Quarantined and NSFW content is free from advertisements (ie, generating no revenue for Reddit) and does not show up in public search results.

While the policy sounds good in theory, allowing Reddit to maintain the freedom of speech which has made it so popular while distancing itself from transgressive content, the vague wording is already causing some problems.

Twice in his official statement, Huffman suggests that you know pornography and transgressive content “when you see it.” What comes across as explicit sexual behaviour to one culture might seem completely benign to another (eg, a couple kissing); violent, racist speech may seem acceptable (right, even) to a religious minority, even if everyone else finds it abhorrent. Given that Reddit mostly relies on unpaid moderators to keep content in check, any policy those moderators have to enforce should be clear enough to transcend cultural differences and misunderstandings. Further, they should also make sure that they have enough moderators to keep up with the enormous amount of content posted to the site every day, and apply the new policies to existing subreddits in a timely manner. While some of the most notorious offenders, like racist subreddit Chimpire, were immediately removed following the implementation of the new content policy, other incredibly disturbing subreddits which feature illegal content (like Watch People Die, which includes incredibly graphic video content from car accidents and even murder scenes) are still standing, with only an age restriction in place.

Banning “illegal” content is also mildly problematic, as different geographic regions have different laws; for example, a Redditor based in Colorado should be perfectly within their rights to promote and sell marijuana via the website, whereas a Redditor based in New York should not.

If you’re running your own private social network, you’ll need to have content policies in place to make sure it’s a safe, welcoming environment for your members; you’ll also have to be mindful that you may need more staff as your community grows (voluntary or paid). That policy may also need to evolve as your community does. PeepSo will take care of the technical side, with a fantastic admin interface that works right out of the box; it’ll be up to you to come up with a set of rules that is clear, fair, and will allow your community to run smoothly.

What Everyone Can Learn From The Ashley Madison Hack

In July this year, a group of hackers claimed that Ashley Madison, a site designed to facilitate affairs between married individuals, retained users’ data even after they’d paid 19 dollars to have it completely scrubbed from the database. They released a small sample of the data they claimed to have stolen, and said they would release the rest of it if Avid Life Media, the owner of the site, didn’t take it (and its companion site, Established Men) down. Avid Life Media said it was a bluff, and Ashley Madison stayed up.

ashleymadison

Today, a 10GB torrent file was released on the dark web with the following statement:

“Avid Life Media has failed to take down Ashley Madison and Established Men. We have explained the fraud, deceit, and stupidity of ALM and their members. Now everyone gets to see their data.

Find someone you know in here? Keep in mind the site is a scam with thousands of fake female profiles. See ashley madison fake profile lawsuit; 90-95 per cent of actual users are male. Chances are your man signed up on the world’s biggest affair site, but never had one. He just tried to. If that distinction matters.

“Find yourself in here? It was ALM that failed you and lied to you. Prosecute them and claim damages. Then move on with your life. Learn your lesson and make amends. Embarrassing now, but you’ll get over it.”

A number of sources have claimed the validity of the data; Per Thorsheim, a security researcher, was able to confirm the validity of some of the details included in the dump (his own, from a profile he created while researching dodgy dating sites, and that of one of his sources). He was also able to verify that other information in the file matched up to users he’d viewed while investigating the site. Microsoft MVP for Developer Security Troy Hunt said that there are too many things in the file that couldn’t have been faked – or would have required an enormous amount of effort to fabricate.

While it would be easy to see the moral of this story as “don’t cheat on your spouse”, it also highlights just how careless people can be with handing over their personal data. 73% of people admit to not reading website terms and conditions before handing over their email address, if not their full name, date of birth and other valuable data. Of those who do read the terms, only 17% say they understand them.

When you’re signing up for an online product or service, you should ask yourself the following questions:

1. Why do they need the data I’m handing over?

2. What are they going to do with that data (including, but not limited to, how long will they be keeping it in their system)?

3. How would I feel if this data were released to the public (by the website, or one of its users)?

For the most part, handing over your credit card details to a website that’s planning to store them for future use (eg, ongoing automatic billing) isn’t a huge issue; if your card details get released, you cancel the card and hope you don’t end up out of pocket. If your name, date of birth, address and/or phone number are posted, you might run into some issues with stalkers or identity theft (the likelihood of that depends on your profession). If there’s something you don’t want your friends and family knowing about (your sexuality, gender identity, hobbies), think carefully about who’s on your friends list (because you never know who might take a screenshot), make sure you understand your intellectual property rights, and if you really don’t want anyone seeing your posts, messages or knowing you’ve bought a particular product or service…maybe it’s better to avoid it altogether.

Ashley Madison lied to its users, and asking for 19USD to completely scrub a user’s details (whether they did it or not) is very thinly veiled extortion. For the most part, asking yourself the above questions will help you keep your information safe online; particularly if you belong to a private social network, where you know the owners/moderators and can trust them to remove your data if you ask them to.

 

Anxiety Social Net

Interview: Salomon Ptasevich of AnxietySocialNet

Salomon Ptasevich runs his own private social network using JomSocial, the Joomla-based predecessor of PeepSo. We interviewed him to find out more about his site, and his experience running a private social network using a website plugin.

Tell us a little bit about your private social network.

Anxiety Social Net is a social network for people struggling with mental health issues. The site has been live for over 4 years, since the very beginning of JomSocial. AnxietySocialNet has many features and customizations that don’t come with the default version of JomSocial; we have a Q&A system, personal diaries for each user and live chat among other things.  The community has been featured in many publications including ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America) and PSFK . Today we have over 10.000 users and new members are signing up every day.  People on the site are very supportive of each other and many users have reported that simply being in a “safe place” where they can share their experiences with others who can relate has helped them understand they are not alone in their struggles and in turn reduced their anxiety.

Anxiety Social NetWhy did you decide to start a private social network, rather than setting up a Facebook group or a forum?

From the start it was clear to me that I wanted to create an independent resource where people could come and share their innermost feelings. I think Facebook is a great tool for sharing in the good times but people refrain from showing weakness in front of their close family and friends due to a fear of being judged. The other problem is that groups and pages on Facebook are subject to (Facebook’s) own guidelines and I didn’t want to be limited by that. The last thing that really bothered me was that I wanted to create a specific type of environment and that is not possible with the current functionality of Facebook groups and pages.

What have been the biggest challenges so far?

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to create a social network. The problem was that the technology was not quite there yet (didn’t match up to the vision). Back then, when another team was in charge of JomSocial, I ended up spending thousands of dollars in customization just to make it user friendly and function the way I wanted.  At the end of that process I ended up with an hybrid monster of sorts that was really hard to maintain and impossible to upgrade. I pretty much gave up on JomSocial until Merav and the iJoomla Team (the people who created PeepSo) took over and made JomSocial what it is today. Around six months ago when I saw what the new version of JomSocial had to offer, I finally accepted that I would have to let go of my little monster to take advantage of the new, advanced direction the technology was taking. I then started a fundraising campaign to pay for the upgrade of the community to JomSocial 4. Our members ended up funding 70% of the costs, I chipped in with the rest and made it happen. I can say that today I am very happy with the results and the site is finally upgradable and pretty much in my hands without the constant need for developers I used to have.  Also, since the upgrade we are getting more users and engagement has grown considerably. It’s been a bumpy ride but I am very happy I invested time and resources in this project as it has a positive influence in people’s lives.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting their own private social network?

I would say, If you really want to create a community just go for it, It has never been easier than today (especially with plugins like JomSocial and PeepSo). I would recommend that you start a community on a topic you are really passionate about, as it can be hard to kick start it and you need to put a lot of time and energy to make it really happen. Lastly, you have to be perseverant as they may be a lot of bumps along the road but if you keep at it you will find things get better and it’s really worth it.  

Turning Brands into Communities

In his book How Brands Become Iconsmarketing theorist Douglas B. Holt puts forward that you need three types of consumers to sustain your brand; followers, insiders and feeders. Followers are people who connect with the brand’s story, and incorporate it into their own sense of identity (think people who’ve grown up drinking Coke and feel a loyalty to the brand, people who choose to drink Heineken because their father did). Insiders are people who influence other people to buy (the cool kids at school, people who are “famous” on mainstream social media). Feeders use the brand to say something about themselves (people who choose Android to seem less “mainstream” than Apple users), and are the most fickle as they tend to abandon the brand as soon as it’s no longer socially relevant to them. 

logos-brandingIf we take Holt’s suggestion to be true (which, given his experience and credentials, we probably should), incorporating a private, self-hosted social network into your marketing strategy can be an important step toward long-term success.

Private social networks are ideal for followers. By creating your own social network, you’re encouraging and fostering the idea that your brand is something they’re a part of. For people who feel (or are inclined to feel) that a brand is part of their identity, something they’ve fully embraced, social networking is a great way to connect with others who feel the same way and want to share about their experiences.

Insiders are the Pied Pipers of marketing; people follow them because they want to be wherever they are, regardless of the destination. If an insider recommends your site or product, you might see a short-term spike in visitors and sales. If an insider joins your social network, their followers will likely join as well and once they start participating in the conversation, you have a much better chance of converting them to loyal, long-standing customers.

Feeders use brands to make statements; and if they’re part of your social network, that’s a much more powerful statement than just using your product. You’re creating a space in which they can fully explore the reasons they’re choosing to use your product or service, and the part of their identity it affirms.

On top of catering to all three groups, having your own social network is the ideal way to identify which of these categories your (prospective) buyers fall into, and which you’ll need more of to sustain your brand over time. You’ll get much clearer information and insights than you would from a page on one of the mainstream social networks; people won’t be swayed by how they want to be perceived by family and friends they’ve added on Facebook, and there’s no algorithms that will prevent people from interacting simply because your post didn’t show up in their newsfeed.

In short: having your own social network is one of the best things you can do to cultivate the audience you need for your brand’s long-term success.

Interview: Leanne Hughes on Social Media and the Body Modification Industry

Leanne Hughes is an internationally respected body modification artist (specialising in body piercing), and has recently moved from Australia to London to continue her professional development. Her next project is a membership site focused on connecting industry professionals with trusted vendors (conceived and built by Samppa and Aneta VonCyborg, owners of VonCyborg Body Art). We spoke to her about social media and the body modification industry; the pros, the cons and the potential.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, and your background in the industry.

I grew up as a somewhat isolated and lonely individual, never really feeling like I fit in, until seven years ago when I began my career in the body modification industry as a body piercer at The Piercing Urge in Melbourne, Australia. The body modification community is my family and I am very much at home within it. I did my piercing apprenticeship at The Piercing Urge, Australia’s leading body piercing and tattoo studio. I fell quickly into it, piercing came very naturally for me and after a few years I started specialising in genital piercing and had a lovely and loyal client base.

leanne hughes tongue splitAt the start of the year I made the decision to leave Australia, pursue my desire to travel and my dreams to move further into the body modification scene. On June 30th 2015 I flew to London and have been residing there with Samppa and Aneta VonCyborg. Samppa VonCyborg is one of the world’s best known and respected body modification artists; body modification has its roots in the piercing industry, but has developed and progressed into more extreme modification of the body.

I am currently working as a Personal Assistant to the VonCyborgs, as well as working part time in a well known tattoo studio, Love Hate Social Club London, which is part of the famous Love Hate Tattoos chain by Ami James of Miami Ink. Body Piercing, modifcations, tattoos, scarification and  body suspension are my biggest passions. My personal modifications include several piercings, heavy tattooing, scarification and a tongue split. I also partake in body suspension when I can, it is the most beautifully intense and euphoric experience I have ever known.

Do you think social networking has had an impact on the piercing community, and how people perceive body modification?

leanne hughes piercing 2Social networking has definitely had an impact of the piercing community and the way people perceive body modification. I believe for the most part it has been a positive impact in that it has brought the industry into the mainstream and it is becoming more accepted in society to be pierced, and tattooed, and the more extreme modifications are also becoming more accepted. There is definitely a fascination held by those not involved in the scene. However there will always be people who view modification negatively and will judge harshly. But that goes with anything in life.

What are the upsides and downsides of social networking, from your professional point of view?

The downside to the industry being brought into the mainstream is that the line between those passionate about modification and those being modified to be “cool” has become blurred. And sadly, true artists are being “copied” by individuals not good enough or qualified to be offering modifications. This includes not only piercing and tattooing but sadly extreme procedures such as tongue splitting and ear pointing. It is one thing to receive a dodgy piercing that you end up having to take out, or a bad tattoo that you have to get removed or cover, but it is another matter altogether to have what is technically a “surgical” procedure performed by an incompetent artist and suffering severe medical conditions and/or disfigurement as a result.

That said, there is thankfully a good deal of focus and effort made by the industry to communicate the importance of doing research before undertaking in any form of body modification, whether a simple ear piercing, a tattoo or a tongue split.

Facebook, Instagram and the other major social networks have fairly strict content policies; have you ever seen photos reported that you don’t believe should have been?

I have definitely seen photographs that have been reported with no need to have been, generally by those who are narrow minded and judgmental. I personally posted a photo on Instagram of a male nipple piercing I did and it was reported as nudity as someone thought it was a female nipple (off topic, but for the record I strongly support the “free the nipple” movement).

On the other side of that I have also seen photographs posted that definitely should be reported. I think the way social media sites, Facebook and Instagram particularly, moderate posts needs improvement.

Are there online communities for piercers outside of the “major” social networks – if so, how popular are they? If not, do you think there’s a market for one?

Outside the realm of Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr, there really aren’t any alternative social networking sites for the piercing and modification industry. Fetlife has become a means of communication, but is not an industry specific site. BMEzine was the biggest site for the industry, an online magazine noted for coverage of extreme body modifications, but sadly it has slowly been diminished over the years – the founder of the site, Shannon Larratt, passed away in March 2013.

I think there could potentially be a market for industry specific sites, but with the ability to create forums and groups, either public or private, on Facebook this is perceived as a much easier and more favorable option. These forums and groups, more so the private ones, give piercers, tattooists and modification artists a means to communicate, share, ask questions, seek advice, discuss and debate. The privacy also allows the sharing of photographs that would not be permitted to be shared publicly, so that is definitely a bonus. There are many forums and groups, some piercing only, some tattooing only, some extreme modification only, some shared. Some are wonderfully informative yet some are not so great, as is the way with any industry.

I personally would love to see an industry specific social networking site, however I don’t see it happening any time soon due to the dominance of Facebook.

PeepSo 1.1.0 Is Out!

PeepSo Members Page

PeepSo Members Page

We’re proud to announce that PeepSo 1.1.0 has just been released!
A major focus of this update was the inclusion of a Members page to create a special wall for your community. Combined with real-time search, you’ll be able to filter users as you type and see how many friends you have in common for each person listed.

PeepSo Getting Started Page

PeepSo Getting Started Page

We’ve also created a ‘Getting Started’ page with a video showing the first steps you should take as you create your own community. You’ll receive a list showing the pages, the shortcodes and the official PeepSo plugins available. Sign up for our newsletter and we’ll give you a free copy of The Secrets of Successful Online Communities ebook.

Photo counter on Activity Stream in PicSo 1.1.0

Photo counter on Activity Stream in PicSo 1.1.0

Another feature that was introduced in PicSo 1.1.0 is the overlay that says how many pictures there are in one post. It looks fantastic and really adds to the plugin’s usability.

This version also fixes a number of bugs and adds improvements not only to the core but also to supporting plugins. You can see the changelog here.

Don’t wait. Upgrade to the latest version today. You can find upgrade instructions here.

10 People Who Were Arrested for Social Media Posts

It’s not just people living under oppressive governments who get arrested and imprisoned for what they post on social media. Even your “friends only” content can end up getting you in trouble; your contacts might report your post to the authorities, and Facebook will get in touch with police if they believe someone poses an immediate threat to themselves or others, or if someone has uploaded criminal content.

It’s pretty clear that in most cases, people simply don’t understand the implications of posting to a site with millions (or even billions) of members; that when you post something to Facebook, you’re writing with permanent marker (if you have a teenager, it might be worth creating a private social network for family and friends until they’re aware of and prepared to deal with the consequences of what they say).

Here’s some examples of people who were jailed or fined for what they put up on social media; sometimes jokingly, sometimes not.

1. Up in the Air

Paul Chambers wasn’t very happy about his flight being delayed due to snowfall; he tweeted that the airport (mentioning it by name) had “a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!” A week later, he was arrested under the Terrorism Act and detained for seven hours.

In another case involving British travelers, two young British tourists were  detained on arrival at Los Angeles airport (LAX) after one of them tweeted that he was going to “go and destroy America.” Even though “destroy” is just British slang for “party”, the man and his traveling buddy spent the night in separate cells, and were put on a plane back home.

2. Photographed Red-Handed

Maxwell Marion Morton was charged with first degree murder after posting a photo of himself and his victim to Snapchat (one of his friends took a screenshot of his perhaps unintentional confession, with his username in full display). 

A teen mom in Florida was arrested after posting a photo of her then-11 month old son seemingly smoking a bong on Facebook. The authorities decided that the photo was staged and the child had definitely not ingested any drugs, but the mother was still fined for owning the bong and forced to undergo an assessment of her parenting ability.

3. Friends or “Friends”?

Maxi Sopo fled Seattle for Cancun after he was charged with bank fraud. He bragged about it to all his friends on Facebook, including a former justice department official. He was arrested and sent back to the United States.

Jacob Cox-Brown posted “Drivin drunk… classic 😉 but to whoever’s vehicle i hit i am sorry. :p.” on his personal Facebook page. One of his friends reported the post to police, who matched his car to an unresolved hit and run case and he was prosecuted. 

4. Evil Exes

Mark Byron was going through a custody battle with his wife, after she claimed (and he disputed) that he’d committed an act of domestic violence. He posted “… if you are an evil, vindictive woman who wants to ruin your husband’s life and take your son’s father away from him completely — all you need to do is say that you’re scared of your husband or domestic partner…” on Facebook, and a judge ordered him to post an apology to his wife on Facebook (to be left up for thirty days) or he’d end up spending two months in prison.

David Voelkert was friended by a stranger called Jessica Studebaker on Facebook – or rather, someone pretending to be a stranger called Jessica Studebaker. He knew that it was really his ex-wife Angela, who had created the profile to try and get information she could use against him in their custody battle. He told her, via the fake profile, that he’d planted a GPS in Angela’s car and was planning to kill her. Angela took the information to the police and David was arrested; he was released immediately when he produced a notarised affidavit stating the following:

“I am lying to this person to gain positive proof that it is indeed my ex-wife trying to again tamper in my life. In no way do I have plans to leave with my children or do any harm to Angela Dawn Voelkert or anyone else.”

5. Pitiful Pranks

Dakkari McAnuff posted “100 RT’s (Re-Tweets) and i’ll shoot someone walking,” on Twitter in March 2014. After that, he posted a photo of a rifle pointed at a Los Angeles street, someone lying dead, and himself (apparently) in a police car. Police used the posts to track down his location, raided his home, and charged him with making criminal threats (costing him a hefty 50,000 dollars in bail money). He and his friends claimed it was a prank that got out of hand.

A 14 year old Dutch teen sent a tweet to American Airlines (under the username Queen Demetriax_), saying “Hello my name’s Ibrahim and I’m from Afghanistan. I’m part of Al Qaida and on June 1st I’m going to do something really big bye.” Although intended as a joke, American Airlines responded with “Sarah, we take these threats very seriously. Your IP address and details will be forwarded to security and the FBI.” She pleaded with them not to tell her parents or take action, but eventually had to turn herself into police where she was charged with posting a false or alarming announcement.

 

 

Pottermore, Fandom and Social Networking: A Case Study

When it hit the internet in 2011, Pottermore was near revolutionary. It was interactive fan fiction, written and sanctioned by the author herself; taking the world of the books outward in an “official” capacity, rather than allowing fans to extrapolate freely where they could see open doors and unfinished threads.

PottermoreThe major drawcard of the site was (the aforementioned) new content from JK Rowling, giving greater insight into characters, events and objects from the books. Fans of the books could be sorted into a house by a “real” Sorting Hat quiz, rather than relying on fan-made ones to determine whether they were more Gryffindor or Ravenclaw. The site promoted itself as a safe haven for young Potter fans, requiring parental consent for users under 13 and ensuring no personal information was given through a user’s profile.

The social networking aspects of the site didn’t become fully realised until July 2013, when new features allowed users to comment on every section of the website (from JK Rowling’s original content, to the interactive pages devoted to each chapter of the books), chat with other members of their house, submit fan art and post status updates. Once established, the comments section became a place for fans to interact as themselves, or as role players (pretending to be Hogwarts students).

Despite taking multiple precautions to ensure a safe, G-rated site (for example, banning the use of numbers – so people couldn’t share phone numbers – and certain words, introducing a reporting function), some role players integrated sexual references into their roleplay (“unicorning” being the euphemism of choice). Other role players would describe the injuries sustained from duels in graphic detail. People began to use nicknames (placed at the end of their posts), rather than just their randomly generated usernames, for ease of identification.

pottermore-feature-3In April 2015, the social networking features of Pottermore were pulled. The Pottermore team said that they felt these features weren’t serving the community, and they were unable to effectively monitor comments, statues and comments as user activity increased. The sudden loss of these features was met with dismay by many users, who had no way to contact the friends they’d made on the site and enjoyed interacting with on a daily basis.

This may look like a case study of the pitfalls of social networking more generally, but I’d argue that it makes a better case for why smaller, independently governed social networks tend to be more successful for niche interest groups – particularly fandoms. Bringing the entire Potter fandom together in a single space without roping off sections for role play, chapter discussions etc (ie, having everyone in the same place) was always going to cause problems – if people are in a space (or a sub-space) where they understand and agree with the rules, you’re less likely to be overwhelmed by reports from users who aren’t okay with what’s happening around them. It’s an important reminder of why you have to inherently understand (and accept) the ins and outs of a community and how they behave and interact online before opening up a space directed at them. What happened here was predictable (fandom being fandom); and yet, the closure was still credited to user activity getting beyond what the Pottermore team could manage.

The fan social networks which have succeeded tend to be segmented, or directed at a particular niche; MuggleNet is an excellent example, with different areas available for different kinds of discussion (they’re so successful, in fact, that they make thousands of dollars in advertising revenue each year). If you’re thinking of creating your own, fandom-based social network, it’s worth investing in software that will allow you to add features as your community evolves, and build it in a way that works *with* fan culture, rather than trying to restrain it.

Interview: Samantha van Vleet of Cassava Shop

Samantha van Vleet owns Cassava Shop, an organic non-GMO herbal supplement company based out of the United States. She also owns TTCTwins, a semi-private forum/network for people trying to conceive twins. Her company is a great example of how niche social networks can benefit small business owners, and even create business opportunities; we interviewed her about her experience running a niche network, and how it gave rise to a very successful online business.

samantha van vleet

Tell me a little bit about TTCTwins; why you started it, where it came from.

I have been fascinated with twins from the time I was little. I had a set of Cabbage Patch twin dolls and I always had them. I dragged them everywhere. Once I got older, I still thought the idea of twins was amazing. I looked online for places that discussed it, but there really weren’t many and the places that were available, weren’t so friendly. Women would be attacked and vilified for wanting twins because of the potential health risks involved and “no one should want that for themselves or their babies.” Yes, there are risks involved in having twins, but the decision to try for twins isn’t anyone but the couple who is trying’s. So in 2009 I decided to set up a simple forum and I posted the link two or three places. It grew insanely fast and quickly became the authority on the subject, simply because there was no other site dedicated to the subject. It became a safe haven for these women who wanted twins to find information, support and assistance without being judged for that desire.

Why did you decide to start your own membership site, rather than using existing social networks (eg, Facebook groups)?

For the same reason I was avoiding the other sites; the judgement and condemnation of choosing to try for twins. By creating a membership based site, you give members the ability to protect their privacy and conceal their identity much more so than they would be able to on Facebook. And with such a delicate subject, this is important. I wouldn’t want to post on Facebook under my full name, about my attempts to conceive twins where my family or friends could easily stumble upon it and identify me.

How did TTCTwins become, or give rise to, Cassava Shop?

Many of the women on TTCTwins were talking about yams increasing fertility. This sounded odd to me and a few members and I decided to research more on it. Turns out it was a very specific type of wild yam that had this twinning effect. A village in Africa had a twinning rate of 1 in 11 and it was believed to be due to the estrogen-like substances in the skins and peelings of sweet cassava, consumed daily by members of the tribe. Obviously, we all wanted some, however, at the time there was only one source for it. I had ordered a bottle, but it just seemed fishy to me. I started looking into it more and I just had an off feeling about it. I decided to make my own to see if it was even possible to replicate the powder in the capsules I had bought and still include the skins and peelings as advertised. There wasn’t. I later determined that those capsules were filled with gari, a cereal like product made from cassava that didn’t contain the beneficial skins and peelings. At first, I intended just to make them for myself, but when other members of the site learned about the gari in the other capsules, they were outraged. After all, who wants to take a supplement that doesn’t even contain the stuff it needs to work effectively? Members started asking me if I would make them a bottle as well. I agreed, and next thing I knew, I had emails nearly daily requesting bottles of sweet cassava supplements. My husband looked at me one day and asked “So, when are you turning this into a business?

Do you think niche social networks are better for small business owners, or prospective small business owners, than the larger social networks?

Absolutely. We use coupon codes to track where our sales are coming from (along with other tools) and I would say that 80% of our sales stem from TTCTwins. The reason is simple. We are the trusted authority. We have had competitors pop up since we started Cassava Shop, but they don’t have the advantage we do. We’re trusted. We’re the authority on the subject. We are the place everyone turns to for information on trying to conceive twins and one of the first results on Google.

What advice would you give to someone looking to start up their own niche interest group or private social network online?

Find something that isn’t out there yet and make it work. Focus in on a specific niche. Don’t be afraid of it being taboo or eccentric. Odds are, if you’re interested in it, there are surely other people who are too.

Social Networking Digest: What’s Making News This Week

It’s been a busy week in the world of social networking, with more and more independent, smaller networks emerging, and all the major players taking a hit on the stock exchange. If you’re thinking about starting up your own social network or work in online advertising, here’s three news items you should be aware of.

Social Networking Digest

Image via Associated Press

1. Things haven’t been looking so great for major social networks on the stock market; even Facebook, which isn’t suffering from the same drop-off in sign-ups and activity as Twitter, Yelp and Linkedin wasn’t safe, dropping 2.6 percent. Facebook’s stockholders may simply have decided to cash in after the company’s stock reached record highs a few weeks ago, but it’s also been suggested that people have been spooked by their 82% rise in expenditure (hiring new staff, and investing in technologies that will bring the internet to remote parts of the world). By contrast, smaller social networks like Migme are having a fantastic run, with their shares showing continuous growth.

2. 18 percent of social networking site users have blocked, hidden, or unfriended someone for posting political articles and opinions they disagree with or find offensive. If you want to argue about politics and religion but don’t want to stir up trouble with colleagues or family, there’s two social networks just for you. Roust is an invitation-only social network for people who want a space to talk about important, hot-button issues in a space where lively, controversial debate is welcomed (encouraged!). They’ve introduced a dislike button, and the creator thinks it works well because people go in expecting strong, potentially unpopular opinions. Sean Parker, founder of Napster, has been working hard on an app called Brigade; this social network was designed to encourage Americans to engage with current events and political news.

This is interesting because it shows that niche social networks can be as much about *how* we communicate (eg, providing a space for people who want to be able to share strong opinions or do everything via video), as they are about creating spaces for people with similar interests to come together.

3. They’re calling it “the right to wipe” – that social media users should be able to completely remove any trace of posts they made before they were 18. Social media vetting of prospective college students and employees is becoming increasingly common, and increasingly easy; some employers have even fired current employees based on what they posted on social media as a teen, years after the posts were made. It’s something that’s worth thinking about – should we be looking at encouraging teens to join smaller, less public social networks while they’re going through their formative years? It’s also important to consider, before admonishing young people for not thinking about how their posts could affect them later, that large social networks are collecting huge amounts of data about users, regardless of how careful they are about their privacy settings – and they aren’t particularly transparent about how they share that data, and who they’re sharing it with.