Rachel Cook recently had a baby and wanted a place to get advice and connect with other parents on the Web, but she didn't find a lot of good options.
So she did something about it, and co-founded Minti.com, which launched in March. Privately funded and run out of Perth, Australia, Minti is designed to be a Wikipedia of sorts for parenting advice. Its content is user-generated from a community of parents offering tips on everything from potty training to immunization.
Cook is one of a growing number of parent-entrepreneurs who are putting their time and money behind their familial interests and starting a new generation of Web sites for parents and older people--sites that borrow many of the social networking concepts, such as photo-sharing and the wiki, that are found on well-known destinations like MySpace.com
and the aforementioned Wikipedia.
Call them "Family 2.0" sites--places for people who may feel a little strange hanging out with the teenybopper set on MySpace. While big family-friendly sites have been around for a long time, few of them have taken advantage of newer Web technologies, even things as widespread as RSS feeds and mapping links.
"It's an underserved market," said Joe Kraus, founder of the Net software company JotSpot, which in May introduced Family Site, family networking software. "It's as if, in the world of cars, all the marketers have been talking about horsepower and engine size, but the whole market was really interested in safety and convenience. (On the Web), we're finally (saying) what people want to hear, like how I use this tool to keep my family in touch."
Since January, nearly a dozen family-networking portals have launched in test version, including Ourstory.com, Zamily.com, Amiglia.com, Families.com, Famoodle.com, Jotspot Family Site, Cingo.com, FamilyRoutes.com and Famundo.com. Even Martha Stewart plans to introduce a similar social network for women to swap recipes and advice.
So what's special about these sites, given that parents have long used online discussion forums or gotten parenting tips from iVillage.com? The answer is that many draw on advanced social-computing technologies like RSS, wikis and mapping to help families do the simplest of things: stay in touch, share photos and calendars, plot the family tree, plan vacations and even vote for next Christmas' main dish.
As is characteristic of other sites that take advantage of social applications, they're also run with user-generated content and few in-house resources.
"There's a greater concept at work here that brings together technology--cheaper storage, better processing power and high-speed connections--with social forces. There's an aging population looking to connect and express themselves," said Peter Kim, senior analyst at research firm Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.
That so many familial sites have blessed the Web simultaneously could mean there's a frothy bubble forming around social networking and Web 2.0 technologies. Or it could be that the Web has matured enough to finally draw late-adopters who don't want to geek-out with technology.
The astounding growth of MySpace also has others wanting to carve out a niche of their own in the social networking scene.
"Kids are very savvy about technology and parents need to keep up. This enables parents to be more connected with what's happening with the world," said Cook.
Kraus said Jotspot stumbled on the idea for Family Site after many people were using its business-designed wiki technology for social tasks, like keeping track of birthdays and sharing calendars.
"We followed our noses based on what people were doing with JotSpot," he said. "But wikis aren't the easiest technology to understand, so we've tried to obscure any wiki-ness about it" for Family Site.
People can set up a secure family site within minutes. And Jotspot offers features like voting tools, and interactive family maps that illustrate genealogy and allow members to explore the big picture of their family's generations.
These Web sites offer services meant to facilitate family networking:
Myheritage.com is a free facial recognition site offering photos and genealogy launching this month.
Famundo is a combination free and pay site coming this summer that offers calendar sharing, birthday reminders and vacation planning.
Jotspot is a free site in beta that offers genealogy maps, voting, and sharing of photos and recipes.
Amiglia is a combination free and pay site in beta that offers photo sharing, dynamic family trees and kid photo games.
Ourstory is a free site in beta that creates timelines with life experiences, photos and video.
Zamily is a free site that launched in May offering all things social networking for the family.
Families.com is a free site that launched in 2005 offering an advice and blog community for parents.
Famoodle is a free site that debuted in May offering photo and event sharing, family networking and news.
Cingo is a free beta site offering private and shared calendars, to-do lists, news and movies.
Familyroutes is a free beta site that offers family blogging and photo sharing.
Minti is a free beta site that offers a Wikipedia-style collection of parenting advice.
David Smith, a resident of Norfolk, Va., and the oldest of 20 grandchildren living around the country, said he and his grandfather had been talking about setting up a family site so everyone could communicate better. That's when he discovered Jotspot's Family Site, which launched last month.
"We have a diverse family as far as their computer experiences and usage, so we needed something simple enough for everyone to still participate in," Smith wrote in an e-mail. He added that beyond simplicity, the site delivered more than expected, such as the ability to chart a family tree and to share family recipes.
"This helps break down the walls of distance and makes our individual families feel more a part of each other," he said.
Many of these Family 2.0 sites were started by families who wanted this kind of technology for themselves.
Husband and wife team Paul and Milena Berry started Amiglia, a photo-sharing and family tree site. Privately funded, it launched a public beta in late February, but the Berries plan to introduce a new version this summer. They say Amiglia has already drawn about 100,000 readers.
"Our focus has been anti-WebVan--low cost of operations. We've managed to build Amiglia and develop it for very little," Berry said.
Certainly there's a question of money. Just like with wikis--or collaborative open-source platforms like Wikipedia--many wonder how all of the sites will turn a profit. For now, many are trying to attract enough members so they can eventually pull in advertising dollars, or so they can charge for premium services. But one of the sites can reach a critical mass, profits could remain elusive.
"How the market will make money, and for whom, is a big question right now," said Peter Kim, senior analyst at Forrester Research.
Jotspot, for example, makes money by selling technology subscriptions to businesses. But Family Site is free for consumers. Amiglia.com plans to make money by selling annual subscriptions for better storage. It's free to store 1GB of photos and videos on the site, but access to 100GB of storage costs about $50 a year.
Famundo, based in Pacific Palisades, Calif., is a family social networking site that will launch its first application next week, for organizations like schools. After that, it plans to introduce, in July, a subscription-based service for families, said co-founder Richard Kuhlenschmidt.
As for the family meme on the Web, Berry believes that good ideas float around in the ether and smart people pick up on them at the same time.
"We hope that our strategy of low-cost operations but powerful development cycles will allow us to out-survive them all," Berry said. "We really hope the whole category does burst out in the next six to nine months, but that will be left to be seen."