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It’s pretty obvious that social networking has entered a new era.

Few new social networking companies are trying to steal market share from Facebook, MySpace or the other big entrenched networks. Instead, they’re aiming at specific, lucrative niches.

Five such niche social networks presented a “vertical social networking panel” here in San Francisco at the Techcrunch50 conference. These latest ones target birdwatchers, women wanting help getting dressed in style, dead people, people wanting to connect for good causes, and gamers.

Information on where and how to find birds is what glues the birdwatching community together, but most of it is not in a centralized location. Birdpost wants to move the existing offline social network of birdwatchers online. Aside from connecting active birdwatchers, it also wants to add in GPS location services to show where species can be located (you can use your GPS-enabled iPhone if you want), and alerts for hard-to-find watching opportunities.

Of course, if you’re anything like me, excessive talk about birds makes your watching apparatus glaze over. If that’s the case, it’s the market size that makes this exciting: 13 million people spending $32 billion a year on travel, binoculars and, well, whatever else birdwatchers buy. As the founder said on stage, “The wealthier a person is, the more likely they are to be a birdwatcher.”

It’s hard to make your way through the Internet landscape these days without stumbling across yet another fashion-centered social networking site. Closet Couture is one that’s focused on “helping women get dressed.” Users can upload pictures of their (probably extensive) wardrobes onto the service to help pick out their daily digs, or ogle other people’s closets in the forums. But the most notable feature is a “stylist marketplace” with for-hire stylists who can help users choose what to wear – and what to buy – for a modest fee. Modest if you’re rich, anyway.

CauseCast wants to be the media portal that non-profits speak their message through. The reason that non-profits need help, they say, is they they’re often cost constrained – or if they’re not, they get criticized for spending a lot of money on flashy websites. CauseCast can give them Web 2.0 features, like the ability to upload videos and presentations, and connect potential donors and volunteers with easy tools to do either. Any donations will be funneled back to the non-profit without CauseCast taking a cut. Where they’ll get their money is from charging companies for marketing their own social responsibility.

OK, so I said that none of these networks are competing with Facebook. That doesn’t prevent them from making comparisons to it. Footnote called itself a “Facebook for the deceased”. The company is launching profiles of 80 million dead folks today, based on public information skimmed from Social Security Administration records. That’s mostly just a name, date of birth and death, and last known location, though, so users (the living ones) will be able to add information like pictures, connections to other profiles and stories. But the apparent social networking focus is a bit disingenuous. Footnote’s real focus has more to do with the 43 million digitized records the company has, including old newspaper clippings and records like marriage licenses. For access to those, it will charge a subscription fee.

Shattered Reality’s chances are difficult to gauge. The company wants to do “agile game development”, meaning it will quickly build out massively multiplayer online (MMO) gaming worlds based on the whims and desires of users on their social network. What doesn’t work, they’ll scrap, and what does work they’ll expand upon. The idea is to build up a community of devoted players over time with a free game, tapping into the $6.6 billion paid market with microtransactions for special levels, equipment and more. But as a creative endeavor, everything still relies on how skilled Shattered Reality’s designers are, even if users are providing all the ideas.

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