If you are asked to imagine the founder of a social network, someone like Mark Zuckerberg might be the first thing to come to mind – the kind of person who starts the project in his dorm room and wears a hoodie to investor meetings.
But over the past couple days, a new social network founder has surfaced: the politician.
Yesterday UK MP Louise Mensch launched Menshn.com, a social network currently only available in the US, which mimics Twitter but allows users to discuss issues by topic.
On the same day, the Guardian reported that the Kremlin is preparing to create a Russian social network to rival Facebook
It goes without saying that these are very different ventures, created for very different reasons.
In its article about the Kremlin’s new social platform, the Guardian suggests that project is intended as a direct rival to the voices of activists and government critics online. The paper quotes a statement that President Vladimir Putin made last year "If the authorities do not like what is happening on the internet there is only one way of resisting,” he said, “On the same internet platform you have to propose different answers … and collect a larger amount of supporters."
The obvious question is, who would voluntarily hand over personal data to a network administrated by a government with such a questionable record on human rights and press freedom? No one, suggests Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia’s security services, quoted by the Guardian. "If the government creates some form of social network, then people will not join it," he says, "It is not realistic."
Menshn, on the other hand, looks like a genuinely viable technological venture, driven by a gap in the technology/media market, not by any overt political agenda. It should also be noted that Mensch is launching the project herself as an individual – it is not the product of a political institution.
The concept behind Menshn is to create discussions around specific subjects – “talk on topic” is the network’s tagline. Mensch told TechCrunch in an interview, “I had a brainwave over Christmas about Twitter hashtags and the frustration of following one topic, especially in politics.” She said that her husband likewise “hated the mundane tweets about people having breakfast. He wanted something on topic.” Menshn, created with former Labour party e-campaigns manager Luke Bozier, was the result.
Menshn is wholly focused on discussing the US elections: one topic is for the 2012 election in general, one for Romney’s campaign and one for Obama’s. It is currently only available in the US, but is due to launch in the UK just before the Olympics, which begin next month, writes TechCrunch.
TechCrunch describes the ins and outs of the network in detail, noting that the “user experience is Twitter-like in its simplicity.” The article quotes Mensch, who says it will expand to incorporate more subjects.
Menshn’s launch has provoked a fair amount of surprise on Twitter; the most common response seems to be along the lines of “is this a joke?” It has also spawned the hashtag #MPstartups, punning on the names of companies that other politicians might found. Storyful has a good collection.
Different as they are, the plans for the two new social networks perhaps highlight one thing: social media has well and truly grown up beyond its college phase.