Collage by Elling Lien
When young people in the northeast Avalon want to talk about the local art scene, buy a new guitar, or debate politics, a lot of them use BlueKaffee.com. But with Facebook continuing to dominate social networking, how can one local website compete?
Shawn Hayward clicks on the blue coffee cup.
One day the trademark blue background of Bluekaffee.com was green. The people who helped run the site had no idea what was going on, including Heather Labonté, who was a site moderator at the time.
“It was a really great prank orchestrated by Chad [Levesque],” says Labonté, referring to the site’s founder. “He teamed up with some of our friends to trick the moderation staff into thinking the site had been taken over by a particular user who used to cause a lot of trouble. He changed the site to green. We were all freaking out because we didn’t know how that was possible.”
Bluekaffee began seven years ago as a collaboration of friends—a place for them to share journal entries. In an effort to practice his programming, Levesque designed the website and others like Lebonté volunteered to moderate the forums.
The user list quickly expanded beyond Levesque’s circle to include people they had never met, people who were young and living in St. John’s who shared a lot of the same interests and values as the teenagers who ran Bluekaffee.
“I was simply programming features for fun and to teach myself some programming skills, and strangers started joining and using it,” says Levesque. “It was a complete surprise!”
“It grew from there,” says Labonté. “He opened registration, and three or four friends joined and they told three or four friends. By the time I joined there were 140 users, and that was considered huge.”
But it didn’t stop there. Through word of mouth the website expanded and by 2005 approximately 6,500 were using Bluekaffee regularly, making it the biggest online community based in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“BK helped St. John’s youth get to know each other outside of school and extra curricular activities,” says Labonté, who is now 23. “I think we were just a little bit ahead in social networking, which is cool because St. John’s is not always in the lead for new ideas and innovation.”
Then along came Facebook.
Between September 2006 and September 2007 the social networking giant begun by a Harvard sophomore went from being the 60th most visited website to the 7th.
Today, the Alexa web statistics service ranks Facebook the second most-trafficked website behind Google.com.
Facebook serves a similar function to Bluekaffee, allowing people to create profiles, post pictures, and join online discussions.
As Facebook gained popularity, though, visits to Bluekaffee dropped significantly. The site now gets about 1,300 users daily, a figure that has remained steady for the past three years, according to Labonté, who is now one of the website’s administrators.
“The numbers declined, and then they hit a plateau,” Labonté says. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen as Facebook became more popular. I thought there was a chance Bluekaffee wouldn’t have any real traffic to speak of.”
You can’t do that on Facebook
Facebook has taken some people away from Bluekaffee, but the site still has a loyal group of followers. People like 19-year-old John Michael Bennett use the site to socialize and find out what’s going on in the St. John’s area.
“You can ask questions about local things and people can answer it pretty much immediately, whether it’s about classes or you’re wondering where to buy your new car,” he says. “You can’t do that on Facebook.”
Bennett joined the site in 2004 after hearing about it from a friend. He’s since met many people on Bluekaffee, including his girlfriend of two and a half years.
“I guess BK is important because the local aspect gives you another social networking choice,” he says. “Many users can say they’ve met a lot of people through that website.”
For a social networking site open to anyone, Bluekaffee is very geographically concentrated. The vast majority of users come from this province, and most of them live in the northeast Avalon. That means users often go to the same schools, like the same bands, and live similar lifestyles as most others on the site. It’s that sense of community that’s kept people coming back to BlueKaffee even after Facebook stormed the networking scene, according to Labonté.
“You can keep things more personal and more local,” she says. “You can talk on the forums to other people living in St. John’s who are your age and who are experiencing the same things you are. I don’t think that need is going to go away.”
The layout of Bluekaffee hasn’t changed much since the website went online. Everyone who works on the site is a volunteer, and hiring a web designer is expensive for an organization that relies on donations and money from the administrators’ pockets.
Bennett says although he uses the website regularly, he goes to Facebook for the picture galleries, which he says are better than designed there than on Bluekaffee.
Labonté says Bluekaffee probably won’t change drastically in the future, even though she admits there might be ways to make it easier to use.
“I’m sure there are designs that would be more efficient, but people like the site the way it is,” she says. “One of the things that attracted people to BK and keeps them here is BK stays the same. You can always go back and look at your old journal entries. It’s always stable.”
The real test for BlueKaffee will come from the next generation, according to Labonté. If the website is to survive, it must hold the same value for the young people of today that it did for the youth of seven years ago.
“I’m interested to see in the future whether the site will keep appealing to people 13 to 25,” she says. “One thing I find myself looking at is the age of the people who are most active on the site.”