Blackbox Republic, No Longer Just Sex Positive, Opens Alternative Social Site

12/9/09Follow @gthuang

I wish I could say this is just about sex, but it isn’t. Nevertheless, a lot has changed since we last heard from Blackbox Republic, the Portland, OR-based niche social network that is trying to be a more private and intimate alternative to Facebook and Match.com, for helping manage your personal life. The paid site officially opens for business today.

To refresh your memory, Blackbox Republic was started earlier this year by Jive Software’s former chief marketing officer, Sam Lawrence, and blogger and community relations guru April Donato. Back in July, the company announced it had raised $1 million in angel capital, and was gearing up for a full launch of its social network, which was originally focused on the “sex-positive” community—typically, young people who are very open to other people’s sexual orientations and lifestyles.

But, like most startups, Blackbox decided it needed to change up. Observers were confused by the sex-positive label. Plus, what Lawrence and Donato were doing was potentially much broader than that. What didn’t change was Blackbox’s focus on creating a safe, private network for “like-minded people to share their personal life,” Lawrence says.

So who is the ideal Blackbox member? That remains to be seen, but Lawrence says the people attracted to the site so far tend to be “a bit different, not mainstream.” They are looking for something besides traditional dating sites or public social networks like Facebook and MySpace. And Lawrence says they are “super-diverse, right-brained people” who tend to work in fashion, technology, entertainment, and other creative sectors. He adds that Blackbox wants to be like “Apple to Facebook’s PC.”

One key differentiator is that Blackbox charges a monthly fee—$5, $25, or $49, for different levels of features that include things like event planning and sending gifts. The openness of its target audience is reflected by sliding-scale labels that members can set on their profile pages to describe where they are on the continuum between gay and straight, looking for partners or attached, and so forth—and they can change them any time. Blackbox isn’t freezing out more traditional social media either: members can post comments to Twitter and Facebook from within the site.

But Lawrence emphasizes that what members say in Blackbox Republic will stay private. There’s no danger of what they post inside becoming part of their “Google resume,” as he puts it. He says he would resist efforts from search engines to index content the way Facebook and Twitter allow. “The value proposition is this is the first private, large social network out there,” Lawrence says.

Private or not, new social networks face a slew of tough obstacles—most notably, how to get a critical mass of members to sign up, and how to generate revenue. Blackbox is starting out with nearly 600 “founding” members as of today—community leaders, activists, and other social connectors. Lawrence says they are based mostly in U.S. cities, but roughly 35 percent are international, in places like London, Mumbai, and Shanghai.

Time will tell whether Blackbox takes off. To boost revenues in the meantime, Lawrence says he is working on a number of business development deals. He couldn’t be too specific just yet, but they may include partnering with entertainment companies, as well as tapping into where people go to buy products. “It’s the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “You can expect from us a lot more innovation.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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