Lady Gaga’s startup and the future of social networks

Pop star Lady Gaga has made a very substantial investment in a new type of social network that she’ll control.

In the middle of 2011, an odd alliance formed: Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and Lady Gaga both poured cash into a social networking startup called The Backplane. A handful of other top-tier venture capitalists clambered aboard too.

Despite those high-profile backers, Backplane is in stealth mode. The company’s website is still pretty cryptic and the only thing of note it states is this:

“Backplane empowers social community. We are a canvas for self-expression. We unite people around interests, affinities and movements. We are just getting started.”

First off the blocks is a new community for Lady Gaga fans, called Little Monsters. The site is currently accepting pre-registrations, but a few images of the site have been released to the public.

One of the preview shots of
(click to see at larger size)

“Request an invite to be among the first to experience a new community only for Little Monsters,” the site says. “Because you were born this way!” The latter sentence, in case you’ve been spared Gaga-mania, is the name of the singer’s second album and has been widely interpreted as an especially clever way of coagulating Gaga’s fans into a community by creating a shared sense of difference.

The site is reportedly quite similar to other social networks – users will be able to create a profile and interact with other members. There will be at least one app – a photo editing tool – and an “Events” tab looks like a good way to pump Gaga concert dates straight into the inboxes of devoted fans.

Backplane seems to offer what used to be called a “white label social network,” a term best understood as Facebook clone with your own branding. This kind of social network was often used by community groups or other organisations that wanted more than a static website. The best-known of the white label social networks was Ning, a service that did very well but also restricted its free service to focus on fee-paying customers. That decision was made in part because even though the service attracted lots of enthusiastic users, Ning’s cut of the Google ads that generated didn’t pay the bills (for an example of a good Ning site see Sydney Cyclist). Wetpaint was another white label contender, but also found the free model hard and now publishes celebrity gossip in addition to its social offerings.

Backplane seems to offer a similar service, but instead of offering a ready-to-brand social network to anyone it seems to be chasing big fish like Lady Gaga.

Doing so make sense: Gaga has a colossal fan base (23 million albums and 64 million singles sold) and a dedicated presence on an existing social network would be handing that audience and the monetisation potential it represents to the likes of Facebook.

The big question is whether Gaga can pull it off. Lots of celebrities have their own sites, but the availability of an official information source has not stopped third party sites whose authenticity and independence makes them very resilient and sometimes more appealing to fans. Just how Backplane and Gaga will make their official network compelling, and how the star will treat other social networks, will be fascinating to watch.

Yet it’s hard to bet against Little Monsters, if only because Backplane’s backers are such heavyweights and Gaga herself has such pull. Even if a fraction of her fan base comes across and creates a community of a "mere" million, that's a more-than-decent customer base.

Little Monsters will probably bring white label social networks back into vogue. Expect plenty of exhortations to revisit the likes of Ning and Wetpaint as Little Monsters prepares for its late 2012 launch, after which the online marketing commentariat will probably start telling us all to mimic Gaga's online antics.

In the meantime, all the speculation probably won't hurt the Australian businesses Little Monsters, which offers "Cool, Retro & Rock N' Roll Clothing & Gifts for Kids 0-10 years", or another kidswear site
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