The Hospital's mashup of real and virtual networks

The Hospital private members club in London is not the first place you might look for a new kind of web model. It’s a private members club, afterall. This sort of thing does not scale in the same way that, say, a web app might. Every new member must be vetted by hand. Problem.

However, increasingly you see that VCs are quite interested in sites that makes things happen in the real world, not just online. An easy example of this is the amount of investment that went into dating sites a few years ago. More recently Twitter has lead to real-world meetups being organised, as people realise that the kinds of conversations they have via Twitter show that have something in common.

Interestingly, a European VC has been blogging about this very effect. Paul Jozefak, with Neuhaus in Hamburg has written extensively about this subject. In particular:

I’ve been astonished at how quickly the merger of the online and offline world has taken place. I blogged a while back about how social communities online need to pull their people together in the real world. Well, I’ve been living this phenomenon for a while without really comprehending it. I’ve actually already met a bunch of people via Twitter who simply happened to be in the same place as I. It’s been a great experience and I made friends with at least five pretty cool people if not more. I have also been realizing how common it’s now to hear a couple openly admit that they met via online dating. At dinner last night a business acquaintance practically was a poster child. He met his partner via FriendScout24 and they are already awaiting their second child. He couldn’t be more positive and open about it. Only a couple years back you wouldn’t dare admit you were dating online. I bet now every third or fourth couple gets together this way. This is why I am so optimistic about the mash-ups happening right now in the online world to facilitate real world interaction be it for fun, for business, or for love. Add location based services to Twitter with a bit of Facebook thrown in as well as FriendScout or, put it on the mobile and we’re rockin’. There is still so much which can be done here and I look forward to all the opportunities out there. Just think how powerful a platform could emerge if someone truly cracks this nut!

So the question is, how do social networks become truly useful?

Now, I don’t think that The Hospital is going to necessarily take this issue to the edge.

However, how they plan to go about it is interesting, according to the Club’s David Marrinan-Hayes who oversaw the new network. They are starting as social network for members, which anyone can apply to join online. Why is it interesting? Because a) it fits strategically into their business, b) it creates a launchpad for them to scale in the real world, wherever they find potential members and c) it could eventually scale if the network they created started vetting the members themselves.

Here’s how they’ll do it.

They’ve built an internal social network for members which will be opened up for anyone to join, so long as they meet the criteria of membership. The site recently came out of closed beta. A few other private members clubs have social networks: The Core Club in New York and Adam Street in London. But these are closed networks. The Hospital plans something different.

They will allow anyone to register on their site. Anyone. That’s a big leap for a private members club.

Obviously where it doesn’t scale is that each new registrant will have to be vetted by a human being. They have to go through applications to see if the person is suitable. It’s Mahalo (the human powered search engine) for members clubs.

But what this will do is act as an early warning signal about where the club should set up a site next. So for instance, they plan to set up a new club in Berlin. One way of crowd-sourcing new members is to see how many members they get registering online. That will then feed into the plans for the new club (how it operates, who it targets etc).

They plan to do this – open the electronic clubs first before the real-world ones – for other sites like New York or Shang Hai. If they got a lot of people registering in Singapore, that may mean they start a new location there.

This really works. Even before a club has opened, members could start to socially network online before meeting face to face. The social capital that is built is therefore much stronger. One of The Hospital’s niche’s is aimed at freelancers – if they can collaborate via the site, that’s a win for both sides.

The building blocks of the network are there. Right now the social network is relatively basic, but if the Club is smart, they could really leverage this into something pretty good. RSS, Multilingual supprt, Group functionality, are all planned, as well as “Hospital TV”.

Meanwhile they are launching something called “Hospital Cub 100” a multi industry listing of key players for each city they’ll be in, starting with London.

The real world and virtual world mashup is a great model. The question is, which sites out there could flip in the other direction, into the “real”?