Newsletters, podcasts and niche networks can captivate and connect with small, loyal audiences. Those products thrive on their authenticity, helping them to fundraise or to deliver a curated cohort to advertisers.
Small networks can be uniquely valuable because of their dedicated fanbase—but they can also be dangerous: trusted networks can spread misinformation that goes unchecked.
It’s easier than ever to start a newsletter or a podcast and get paid for your work. Services like Substack and Revue offer tools to launch a subscription newsletter, while platforms like Patreon make it easy to collect recurring payments for various forms of creation. There’s evidence that people are willing to pay for highly specialized media, whether it’s paying gamers for Twitch streams or contributing to a Kickstarter campaign for a new idea.
Venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz announced in July that it would invest in Substack, suggesting we may see accelerated investment in the space. Not all niche networks are high-tech: In June, Wired reported about the role of conference calls in spreading anti-vax propaganda in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn. In a community that generally distrusts outside influences and the internet, the recorded conference calls had credibility because they were facilitated by a member of the community.
That’s a similar challenge to the one faced by WhatsApp in 2018, when rumors about child kidnapping spread quickly in rural India via the messaging service, leading to a series of mob lynchings. Despite efforts by WhatsApp to limit the number of times a message can be forwarded, the proliferation of viral rumors on the platform persist: WhatsApp was a major source for disinformation during the 2019 Nigerian general election.
Tight-knit communities will become stronger as Facebook emphasizes private groups and as micro-influencers gain credibility. Informal networks like WhatsApp groups satisfy a basic human need to connect, but risk further isolating niche communities by amplifying a group’s beliefs whether or not they are accurate.
Major media companies have an opportunity to develop audiences around specific columnists or reporters, but it’s uncertain how that might successfully scale.
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