Social networks are the bars and nightclubs of the Internet.
Some cater to folks looking for a quiet evening on the town. Others offer a spot to share a quick story and a cold beer after a long day at work. And then there are those places where you can usually count on someone drinking too much and taking off their clothes.
Picking a social network – like choosing a favorite bar – isn't always easy. It's not enough to just like it. It also must appeal to the people you're trying to connect with.
“There's no point in being on a social networking site if none of your friends are there,” said Danah Boyd, a researcher at the School of Information at the University of California Berkeley.
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Heavyweights MySpace and Facebook are now facing a host of competitors, both new and old, trying to capitalize on our collective desire to connect with one another. You or someone you know is on MySpace. But what about Plaxo, LinkedIn, FriendFeed, Readr, Iminta, Pownce, Posterous, Bebo, Hi5 or Plurk?
Rapid changes in technology and platforms threaten to send users scurrying to newer ventures. Consider, for instance, the growing popularity of microblogging services like Twitter, which allows users to fire off short messages to friends through their cell phones.
A year ago, MySpace was far and away the dominant player, collecting 114 million unique visitors worldwide in June 2007, compared with just 52 million for Facebook, according to ComScore, a firm that measures Internet traffic. A year later, Facebook had hammered its way into the lead with 132 million unique visits versus 117 million for MySpace.
In the U.S., however, MySpace maintained its dominance with nearly twice as many unique visitors. Still, even in the domestic market, Facebook is growing nearly twice as fast, according to ComScore.
Figuring out which of the younger upstarts might challenge the status quo is anyone's guess.
LinkedIn has proven popular with career-oriented adults, with more than 4 million unique visitors in June, more than doubling its 2007 total, according to ComScore. But with a more corporate – this isn't the place to go for updates on friends' weekend party plans – approach to networking, the site seems to lack a more broad-base appeal.
The next frontier in social networking, most experts say, is likely to be the mobile realm, relying on increasingly smarter cell phones instead of personal computers.
That's what Loopt is aiming for with its GPS sharing system that keeps users up-to-date on the whereabouts of others in their network. Want to share a cab? Looking to grab a quick lunch with a friend? Need help with a flat tire? A Loopt-like network could make it much easier to reach out to friends in your network.
Much must still happen, however, before mobile social networking pushes into the mainstream. There are privacy concerns – others in your network will potentially know where you are at all times – and questions about the ability of the existing wireless infrastructure to handle it.
Some see promise in services like FriendFeed, which essentially keeps your network of friends up-to-date on the things you do online. And there's Seesmic. Instead of trading written comment on a forum, users post responses in short video clips.
It could be that the future of social networking is smaller rather than bigger.
“In some ways, MySpace and Facebook have gotten too big,” said Matt Carlson, an assistant professor of communications at St. Louis University. “People are going out and getting all these friends. But sometimes, these are people we don't have any real connection to.”