AOL chat rooms may be considered dusty tech relics, but they were a cornerstone of the early days of mass Internet. The ability to hang out and exchange messages (in real-time!) with friends and strangers on any topic imaginable wasn't just cool and convenient—it was necessary, because it was a space we went to talk, listen, contribute, and feel like we were being heard by others.
Today, the number of social networks available to us means there's a surfeit of places to come together online—we share aspirational photos on Pinterest, photos from our lives on Instagram, news on Google+, Internet happenings on Tumblr, and everything else on Facebook. But with so many channels to work with (waste time on?), the things we want to say are easily drowned out in noise, making it hard to establish genuine, intimate relationships with groups of people who aren’t close friends and family. Sure, you can like a photo or retweet a clever one-liner as gestures of social solidarity, but they don't go far in making connections that count. Which is why Gina Bianchini, founder of new social network Mightybell, thinks it's time for an AOL chat room renaissance.
Collaboration and action in intimate circles could be her competitive advantage.
"In the early web days, LiveJournals and AOL chat rooms were all about how people were participating in the conversation. They were about deeply engaged communities," Bianchini tells Fast Company. "The current web is about broadcasting personal announcements into a world of feeds."
On Mightybell, Bianchini's new social network, it's less about "me" or "you," and more about "us." Bianchini wants Mightybell to be a hub-of-all-trades for small groups of people—think book clubs, study groups, close friends, cycling enthusiasts. And the key is turning online inspiration into real-life action, something Bianchini claims no social network has yet figured out.
"The idea is that you can take something you saw on Tumblr or Pinterest and turn it into action," she says. "You can take inspiration or aspiration and turn it into a project that you’re probably already organizing today over email or text."
Anyone can sign up to create their own public or private Mightybell space, which has the look and feel of a Tumblr-Pinterest mashup: You can post text, photos, questions, videos, links, files, and events to your space, and everything is visually laid out in a clean grid. You can invite friends from Gmail, Yahoo, and Facebook, and customize your space’s homepage. A chat bar on the side lets you all discuss your shared content as you're updating. Bianchini and her friends use one space to collect ideas about food, home, and travel. She has another one that she uses to replace Basecamp for work.
The fact that Bianchini uses Mightybell as a collaborative space for both work and pleasure may make it seem like the network has an identity crisis. But Bianchini thinks Mightybell's success will stem from its ability to be anything to any kind of small group.
The idea for Mightybell started as an online space where people could come to plan out the steps of a real-life activity—say, going on a camping trip, or throwing a party. But Bianchini quickly realized that trying to add too much structure to the service meant she wasn't giving people enough credit for their own creativity and individuality. She's found that just providing a functional and aesthetically pleasing interface with the right set of tools is a much more effective way to get people to collectively act on their passions rather than trying to force them into online proximity through a shared love of "Food" or "Photography."
"A lot of times people think that social software is about creating a directory of different interests, like saying 'This will be a conversation about bicycling,'" she says. "But that’s actually not the way online communities work, especially not intimate communities."
[Image: Cia B]