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Do We Really Need Another Social Network?

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Fans of pop culture juggernaut Lady Gaga are in for a treat this week with the launch of new social network LittleMonsters.com, an online community thought up by Gaga's manager Troy Carter. The site, which provides a platform for Gaga's loyal devotees (nicknamed "little monsters") to upload and share content, is invitation only at the moment - individuals can sign up for the chance to be sent a membership code. It remains to be seen whether this sign up model will cause the same stir with fans of Lady Gaga as it did with would-be members of JK Rowling's Pottermore site last year.

Of course fan sites are nothing new, but the idea of a "social corridor" (a term coined by Backplane CEO Matt Michelson) dedicated to the career and fan base of one performer sets something of a precedent for topic-based social networking. I reviewed LittleMonsters.com for My Social Agency and compared it to Frankenstein's monster because it appears to be a fusion of social media staples from around the web, with Facebook-inspired chat and notifications, and a similar layout to Pinterest, but little to no original features of its own. Which begs the question; is there any need for a new social network if it offers no more functionality than what is already out there?

After all, it's not as if Lady Gaga is in need of the exposure. With over 26.8 million Twitter followers at the time of writing (that's 9 million more than Barack Obama), not to mention 52.5 fans on Facebook and 2.8 million followers on Google+, one could argue that Gaga's little monsters get more than enough of their idol, and an entirely new network is hardly a necessity.

But Lady Gaga is not the only one playing this game. Last month, Conservative MP Louise Mensch announced the launch of her own micro-blogging site, Menshn.com, a politically focused alternative to Twitter. Initially only available to users in the US (which just so happens to be where the site's funding originates), the goal of the project is to unite users in discussion of shared interests.

However, what was put forward as a civilised forum, protected from un-moderated and abusive content, could easily be interpreted as something of a digital policed state. One of my Twitter followers (who rather tellingly declined to be identified in this post) called the site a walled garden, going on to say: "I know one shouldn't throw the word 'fascist' around lightly, but it looks suspiciously like attempted 'control of discourse'".

The backlash on Twitter has been vehement and far from positive. Mensch was branded a "narcissist" and "attention-seeking troll", while her business model was criticised for being ultimately "undeliverable". Numerous mentions were also made of the London riots last year, during which Mensch called for Twitter to be called down, and it was suggested that she would be only too happy to shut down her own site in times of crisis.

Mensch's motivations are less than clear, to say the least. Is she hoping to simply reduce the risk of trolls in her new community? Or is cyber-Darwinism her intention, does she wish to cultivate an elitist forum where only the most highly informed of politicos are entitled to offer their opinion?

It is far too early to say whether niche social networks are a sustainable concept, so I am probably being a smidgeon Orwellian and dramatic. And naturally there are exceptions to the rule; for instance, social networks such as Gaydar.co.uk will only ever be accessible to people of a certain persuasion. But generally speaking, social media's core appeal is the way in which it brings people together. Darting off to private corners of the internet reeks of self-enforced ghettoisation and in my mind can only serve to childishly exclude people who aren't deemed committed or fanatical enough in any given area of interest.

LittleMonsters.com may yet be able to justify its existence thanks to the passionate and fiercely loyal nature of Gaga's fans. And love her or hate her, at least the Lady encourages individuality and freedom of expression. On the other hand, Louise Mensch could not be more reminiscent of the snooty girl we all knew at school who only allowed people to be her friends if they listened to the right music, wore the right clothes and agreed with every single thing she said. Unfortunately for Mensch, people soon grow out of that thrall and end up having plenty to say for themselves - especially online.