Jennifer Saranow wrote a piece in the WSJ yesterday (The Gated Online Community – requires subscription) about the recent successes of exclusive online “social networking” communities. The most famous invitation-only community is of course Google’s own Orkut – although the company claims that the invitation part was meant to control growth and not to create exclusivity. Others mentioned in the article include asmallworld for people splitting their time between St Barts, London and New York; funhi – with “virtual” bouncers and everything; and closedsociety just to name a few. Those exclusive communities use the exclusivity as a way to lock in traffic and ensure repeat visits, which the more generic communities seem to have problems maintaining (e.g., less that half of Friendster’s 16 million users visit the site regularly).
The article also mentions open communities – like Myspace, Friendster, LinkedIn, and Ryze – noting a trend away from some of the older general purpose communities towards more business-like sites like LinkedIn.
I personally doubt that many of the smaller exclusive communities listed in the article have business models that will prove successful in the long run. It has been a long time since I seriously thought about virtual communities (I once tried to launch a startup in that space – ’96 – a bit too early), but I would have thought that the first key to success in getting a community off the ground was still to get to critical mass as quickly as possible. With exclusivity you can only do that a few times, after which it must be really hard to enlist enough people to invite others to reach that critical mass fast enough. Add to that some of the other critical success factors – such as a shared interest, shared goals, strong sense of belonging, large enough active user base vs. lurkers, etc. – and you end up with a lot of those communities that just have too small a membership and links that are too weak to succeed.
That being said, I am convinced that exclusive communities that can overcome some of those obstacles – communities with very strong bonds, those where a large percentage of the membership is driven to contribute, the ones with a strong sense of belonging, or those communities where reputation is important and peer controlled – can succeed.