Blackbox Republic: “Velvet rope” socialnet targets niche social dating

There are few certainties in the world. One clear phenomenon is that the Burning Man Festival continues to spawn innovative online communities. The most recent virtual entrée into the online maelstrom, Blackbox Republic, was conceived on the seventeen hour trip back from the scorching sands of the playa on Black Rock Desert, according to Sam Lawrence, CEO and co-founder.

The new site, which will go live at 9 PM PST today, is play for the hearts (and wallets) of people “who don’t consider themselves mainstream and are looking for a place to privately explore their personal lives” and aren’t finding satisfaction in the algorithm-driven pairing from sites like Match.com, Chemistry.com or the uncertainties of Craigslist.org.

Blackbox Republic combines features from many different virtual communities that have become familiar as the Web 2.0 bubble as waxed and waned:

  • social networking, like Facebook
  • status updates, like Twitter
  • event planning, like eVite or MyPunchBowl.com
  • image and video sharing, Flickr

The design of the site, as shown on the right, features an updated take on the familiar status box and public areas of social networks.
The vision, as laid out by Lawrence in a phone call last night, is that Blackbox Republic will combine those features in a protected environment that allows users to connect freely, with more privacy than in other networks. Users have to be vouched for, says Lawrence, and granular controls for sharing mean that once they’re approved, a given update can be shared as publicly or privately as desired. Users can integrate Facebook and Twitter into the platform, allowing a public update to be broadcast widely.

One element where Blackbox Republic shows some evolution from previous social dating sites is its event generation and management features. Users can invite people inside and outside of the social network to an event. If they choose, they can create a public destination page that’s available to non-users without exposing more than location details and numbers to external visitors.

It’s worth observing that this is one social network that is not designed for underage visitors nor for those uncomfortable with more progressive approaches to love, relationships and intimacy.

Blackbox Republic offers subscription-based social dating for “all orientations, relationship combinations and lifestyles,” a description that could describe the openness of the Burning Man festival as well.

That hasn’t made all parties happy, at least where traditional business are concerned: as Lawrence shared on his blog, State Farm chose not to underwrite “social software that helps people meet online.” Lawrence says that an iPhone app is in the works, although who knows what Apple will do when it comes social dating.

Social networking fatigue is a reality for many online users. Adding one more to the mix means that users will need to find it easy to use, responsive and secure, especially given the privacy that is at issue in this context. Niche social networks are likely to be a major growth area next year, as companies and organizations use Ning.com and similar platforms to create focused communities. Whether the strategy behind this “velvet roped” social network garners enough subscribers that find the slick design and social dating feature set attractive enough to make it a viable business will be worth watching in 2010.

Disclosure: Sam Lawrence is a friend, stemming back to his time as CMO at Jive Software. I received no compensation, food, services or other swag from writing about this new venture – As with most new creative online endeavors created by smart people, I just found it interesting.

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