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Canadian startup builds a social network for bus riders

This Is Our Stop officially launches Thursday in Vancouver. It has no affiliation with Vancouver's TransLink, but its creators plan to release it as an open-source project, so any interested transit authorities can create their own version.

Call it the "single-purpose social graph" – social networks designed to do one very specific thing, and do it well.

There are many examples, each one intentionally narrow in scale, scope, or features. There's Instagram, which is built for sharing photos, and not much else. Or Path, which limits your personal social network to 150 close friends. Or Pair, which takes this idea to its logical extreme to create two-person social networks for couples.

Starting Thursday in Vancouver, This Is Our Stop aims to create another type of niche social network: a social network for bus stops.

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This Is Our Stop is a side-project of Vancouver-based developers Tylor Sherman and Todd Sieling, who share an interest in transit and open public data. The site is specifically designed with mobile devices in mind. Visit This Is Our Stop from a smartphone, and you're asked to enter the five-digit code from any Vancouver bus stop.

You're then presented with a map of the stop, next-arrival times, and a large text box that invites you to "talk about this stop." Co-creator Todd Sieling says the site is intentionally open-ended, and invites users to "talk about the weather. Or maybe talk about a point of interest nearby. Maybe make a suggestion for the area. It's kind of an experiment. We're treating it like there's a chalkboard hanging in the bus stop, and anybody can grab a piece of chalk and write on it."

Early posts on the site range from pragmatic ("This bus stop is always messy. It would be nice to have a trash can handy.") to poignant. At stop 50771 (Kingsway at Main Street), someone posted this scene: "I was sitting in Gene [a nearby cafe]last weekend and a girl was at the stop. She didn't have any shoes or a jacket. One of staff walked over, gave her a coffee & had a chat. It was a lovely gesture."

It's a touching anecdote, but its author remains anonymous. That's by design.

This Is Our Stop takes an unusual approach to real-world identity. "You don't have to register at all," says Mr. Sieling. Usernames and passwords don't exist. The site keeps track of individual visitors through browser cookies, but unlike many other social networks, users don't get a "a special, static, enduring identity."

Rather, This Is Our Stop tries to emulate real-world bus stop relationships: sometimes fleeting and transient, other times familiar and enduring. "People that we see at bus stops, they come and go," explains Mr. Sieling. "We might see the same person everyday. Or we might see that person once and never again."

For Mr. Sieling, the value of niche social networks can come from increased intimacy and greater focus. "We have these aggregator-style social networks, like Facebook, that are just big rivers of stuff," he says. "There's a kind of relief that you get when you go to a place and there's only one thing, or a few things, to focus on."

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"Facebook is really like the big box store of social networks. There's not really a lot of character there. I think that niche social networks are able to bring character in inherently by having smaller groups of people, or more narrowly construed topics."

For co-founder Tylor Sherman, there's a business case for niche social networks here. He believes that smaller, more focused social networks can be an opportunity for small companies to build viable businesses that don't need to compete directly with larger social networks. They also represent an opportunity to explore alternative business models, beyond the classic social media monetization schemes of advertising and data mining. For example, both co-founders see the potential for their site to be used as a real-time customer service platform – not just by transit authorities, but by any company with more than one physical location.

This Is Our Stop officially launches Thursday at noon PT (3pm ET). It has no affiliation with Vancouver's TransLink, but its creators plan to release it as an open-source project, so any interested transit authorities can create their own version.

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