In the online universe, we're all just a few clicks away from each other.
At least, that's the promise of social networking, a term coined to describe the phenomenon of people connecting to friends, family and colleagues through the World Wide Web.
When Friendster.com, a Mountain View, Calif.-based company, debuted in 2002, it made a splashy entrance as users flocked to the free Web site to browse online profiles. As with online dating sites, member profiles on Friendster feature pictures and lists of favorite movies, music and books. The difference is that, like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, a user also can see the friends of their friends, or their friends' friends' friends... well, you get the idea.
Since Friendster's debut, the number of social networking sites has multiplied, and one newcomer, MySpace.com, is challenging Friendster for supremacy. Other competitors include thefacebook.com , which focuses on college students and recent graduates, hi5.com and orkut.com , which is run by the Google search engine.
Matt Grisham , a 24-year-old student at the Medical College of Georgia, recently turned to Friendster to find classmates from his alma mater, Berry College, in Rome, Ga. The Athens, Tenn., native signed up two months ago at the suggestion of a fellow Berry alum.
"Then it was just to procrastinate from studying, just reading about other people and deciding if I wanted to send a message," Mr. Grisham said, laughing.
"I look for something I can relate to in their profile and then message them and just say I know how you feel,' or I can relate to your situation.' I haven't actually met up with anyone; it's really just bouncing messages back and forth."
Because he's busy with school, Mr. Grisham said, he spends about 10 minutes a day on the site.
"I've enjoyed finding people I haven't seen or spoken to in years, when I really had no idea how to get in touch with them," he said. "We're all split apart, and it makes it easier, because all their schedules are busy." Dave Wolfe , 34, of Augusta, signed up with Friendster in July to keep in touch with his friend Billy Taylor , who lives in Los Angeles.
"I was pretty skeptical, but there were like thousands of people out there," he said. "Neither of us was actively seeking anything like that, but after taking a look, it seemed pretty cool."
Although he has linked up to 15 friends, Mr. Wolfe views the Web site as more of a diversion than a life-changing innovation. He won't write it off as a fad, though.
"The world is getting to be a smaller place, and I think this is one of the mechanisms that can facilitate that," he said.
It's more useful in Los Angeles, he said, where searching for people with similar interests can yield more results
. "There can be a million people around, and you can still be hanging out with the same 15 people all the time. So it can be a good way to meet new people," Mr. Wolfe said.
That jibes with research conducted by Hitwise, an online-monitoring company that found American Internet users in urban areas are on average 91 percent more likely to visit online social networking sites.
The Redwood City, Calif.-based firm also has found that half the visitors to these sites are between 18 and 24 years old. Although dating is a big draw for young people, Friendster Marketing Manager Jeff Roberto said, it's the third-most-popular use amongst the site's 16 million users (a quarter of whom are in the United States). Users of Friendster, he said, tend to skew toward their late 20s, and to keep those users interested, the site recently has added features such as bulletin boards and, most recently, instant messaging.
"Instead of sending an e-mail to a friend and having them forward it for you, you can ping someone in real time and say, I know you through so and so,' " Mr. Roberto said.
Josh Martin , 19, signed up for Friendster two years ago with the idea of promoting his band, Estrela.
"It was kind of limited, and then MySpace came out and everyone went onto that," he said. "MySpace is even better because you can put your songs on it, and you can post all the dates you're playing."
MySpace.com began in September 2003 as a music site, where users could listen to snippets of new songs and look up band itineraries. With 150,000 bands on the site, music is still a focus, but it has morphed into much more. Web logs, (or blogs), games, videos, forums and instant messaging have drawn a large audience among 18-to 24-year-olds, and in many circles it has replaced Friendster.
Augusta-area bands Sick Sick Sick , Kill Radius , Hellblinki Sextet and The Josh Pierce Group have a presence on the site, as do clubs The Soul Bar and Sector 7G. A recent search for profiles with pictures within 10 miles of downtown yielded more than 1,000 18-to 30-year-olds. Mr. Martin used the site to book Estrelas' recent tour from Florida to Tennessee. The only other place on the Web as good for publicizing his band, he said, is livejournal.com
"It was mostly me contacting other bands and seeing if we could play with them," he said "We had a booker, but it all fell through, so it was a last- minute thing. I e-mailed anyone in the area where there were shows and asked if they wanted to let us play with them."
Although he uses it only for promoting his band, Mr. Martin said, MySpace is definitely used for dating and meeting new friends. Among his circle of friends, he has never had to recruit anyone to join.
"Most people are already on it," Mr. Martin said. "MySpace is like a plague."
Reach Patrick Verel at (706) 823-3332 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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