Finding Your Niche: Where to Sit in the World Wide Cafeteria

by Ben Gross

 

Ok, so you’ve got your apple, your cookie, a side of fries, and some chicken (at least, you think it’s chicken). With a toothless grin, the lunch lady sends you on your way into the wild that is a high school cafeteria. As you survey the room, you notice a few definite trends: the jocks sit by the door, ready to leave at the first sound of the bell, the nerds huddle by the library, scarfing down their lunch so they can get started on their calculus homework, and the punks puff their cigarettes behind the dumpsters.  Pushing through the crowd, you know exactly where to go, because you have a niche in this pecking order, a role you fill in this food chain. You find your friends, sit down, and begin to make your way through that (fingers crossed) chicken dish, discussing the things that matter to you.

 

In a way, the Internet is a lot like this high school cafeteria. We are united by a common experience, in that we all go to the same high school; by that same token, we all participate in the grand online experience at large. We’re all on Facebook, Google, and CNN. But, just like high school, online experiences can be (and should be) different for everybody. Thousands upon thousands of social groups exist online, all with their own priorities and interactions. Finding where you sit in this online cafeteria is a process that will help you get the most out of the web.

 

Niche communities are hardly a new concept. By and large, the first online communities were all niche communities. In the early 1990’s, just being on the Web made you part of a niche group – the kind of group that was interested in the development and continued success of web communications. It was this community that wrote Linux, a widely used operating system that was written by a communal effort by this niche group. As Clay Shirky explains in his novel Here Come Everybody, the collective efforts of these communities create potentials far beyond what single users would be able to achieve.

 

As the Internet began to go mainstream, these niche communities began to fade into the background of Web activities, but their importance and power has only grown over the years. There are communities for everybody out there; from single mothers to soccer lovers, monkey owners to Mongolian food makers, if you have an interest or a passion, the Internet is the perfect tool for finding a community of people just like you.

 

I recently when on my own quest to find communities that fit me, and I was not at all disappointed in what I found:

 

Campusbug

Campusbug is a great community for students who want to recieve academic support from their peers. By combining social networking capabilities with an academic suite, the site is able to provide services such as practice tests and studyguides for its users, as well as user-generated content such as flashcards. Users are also able to meet and network, ask for help with homework, or just post pictures and make friends. Of course, there are some obvious shortcomings. The site tends to give off a bit of a Myspace feel, where you are bombarded with messages and content from strangers you don’t feel comfortable sharing with. By the time I logged onto the site for the first time, I already had a message from somebody named “Spyda” that wanted to compare notes. If you can put that aside, Campusbug provides a valuable tool for students of all ages.

 

Braves Nation

Good news: I found my spot in the cafeteria. As an avid Braves fan, I have always enjoyed how the team had garnered a dedicated and loyal following, but since moving to California, I have been living in exile for years. Within moments of joining Braves Nation, I felt right at home again. The site provides forums and related blogs, including streams of the latest Braves news. Not all of the discussion is related to Braves baseball, but since the participants are all Braves fans, there is a communal feel to the discussion. I knew I was in the right place when the site asked some basic Braves trivia questions as a barrier to entry, ensuring all its members were indeed avid and dedicated followers. Moving forward, I can see Braves Nation being an integral part of my Internet experience.

 

Everybody’s online experience will be different, but finding a niche community that is right for you could mean the difference between a casual online experience and finding a place you truly enjoy spending time. Whether you’re braving the chicken or just brown bagging it, I encourage you to find your place in the lunchroom.

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