The Black Stripe: A New Approach to Social Networking

From the coattails of instant messenger, email, and internet dating services comes the 21st century’s most avid contribution to socialization as we know it: the networking website. SixDegrees (2001), Friendster (2002), WAYN (2002), the blockbuster MySpace (2003), and Facebook (2004) are only a few of the sites striving to build their population of users by connecting old friends and introducing new contacts via pictures, messages, events, and profiles containing anything from contact information and demographics to personal interests and public journals.

Now past the prime of half of a decade of web blogs and self-solicitation, the list of social sites is growing, while the demand for more features to set each site apart from another is pushed aside. Stewart King and Scott Rocher, creators of TheBlackStripe.com (2005), have personally encountered their share of networking sites that fail to hold their attention. After a few months of uploading pictures and seeking out contacts, the initial excitement dwindles while many users find themselves slowly disconnecting from a site that doesn’t do much else than mediate. What are these sites missing that will attract users to log on, and then hold their attention long enough to enjoy a beneficial experience once there?

With strong backgrounds in website development, King and Rocher launched a project with the goal of connecting old friends entering a new chapter in life after school with a site that provided a personal, enriching online experience. “I was out of college, my friends were scattered all across the country. I wanted us to all still have something in common,” said King.
With a goal in mind, the choice of which method to employ to channel a lucrative network was obvious. “The decision [to create a photo-sharing network] was based on the growth of the digital camera market in the last two years. It’s a real problem when you’ve got hundreds of pictures but haven’t got a way to organize and push them out to your friends. The Black Stripe takes care of that problem,” said Rocher.

The Black Stripe is designed to be as user-friendly possible, making the site an easy transition for the more seasoned networking users. “The basic underlying structures are largely the same as any other social networking site. You have your little page with your profile and your pictures and your list of friends,” said King. For those who haven’t explored any social-networking site, the Black Stripe is as non-intimidating as they come. “We’ve designed the look and feel of the site to be ultra-friendly and super-clean – it’s probably the most important thing we can do – make the site easy to use,” said Rocher.

What the Black Stripe doesn’t share with sites like MySpace and Hi5, however, is the overwhelming feeling of networking as one small, insignificant user in a web of thousands of members. Although the highly-trafficked sites have optional privacy features that determine who can view your profile or contact you, features like these are easily rendered useless to a member eager to view your profile. The Black Stripe offers a comfortable, even intimate atmosphere of users looking to share photos. “The site is secure enough so users are required to log in, but at the same time it’s open enough so anyone with an email address can join. Facebook requires a school, Friendster and MySpace make your profile too public. I think we’ve found a nice balance between security and features,” said Rocher.

Speaking of features, King and Rocher work continuously to implement ideas for new additions to the site. As a project still in its first year of release, current users enjoy submitting new ideas and watching their suggestions – along with King and Rocher’s continuous creativity – add to the experience of logging on. A “tagging” feature links members to photos and the profiles of their friends, and even sends membership invitations to other non-members included in posted pictures. Unlike other sites that have individual profiles for each user that are edited only by the profile owner, tagging a photo on The Black Stripe instantly links that photo to the profile of any network user associated with the picture. The result? Pictures that others have posted taken by or of a user will appear on multiple profiles, creating a deeper link in the network. “There’s a higher level of trust assumed between users. You can edit some of your friends’ information, re-caption some of their photos and so on. That’s risky, but I think it also promotes intimacy,” said King.

The Black Stripe succeeds at promoting this level of “intimacy” to users without excluding curious spectators. Non-registered viewers have the ability to view photos of their registered friends without setting up membership. Outside viewers, however, do not have the ability to edit photo features or view detailed information about the photo. This keeps the site obtainable to the public while limiting membership to those who take full advantage of the site’s features, as opposed to those who just log in to view photos.

Members can message each other, create individual friend lists, and post as much or as little information as desired on their personal profile. A feature on each user’s home profile page keeps track of friends that have logged in recently. A frequently updated “News” section informs members of the latest features and issues on the site. A newly-added photo scroller displays the ten most recently added photos for all to see.

“There are a lot of features that seem to come to mind when you cross photo sharing with social networking,” said Rocher. “We’ve got a few travel-related features that will help you keep track of where your friends are going and see photos from trips they’ve been on.” The travel features are still in testing mode, but soon users will be able to add details, pictures, travel companions, and lists of friends visited to past, present, and upcoming adventures. But The Black Stripe’s growth won’t stop there. With membership growing and new ideas developing into reality at a rapid pace, users are in for a more enriching experience with every log in to The Black Stripe.

For more information or to become a member, please visit www.theblackstripe.com.

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