A little help from your virtual friends: Social networking moves on

Ever wanted to share a problem, but felt too embarrassed? Or maybe you're just a good listener? Rob Sharp meets a woman putting social networking to good use
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The Independent Tech

It could be said that social networking is no real good. Sure, it's fun to post pictures of yourself on Facebook, but aside from the odd meeting of friends who have lost touch, there's little tangible social gain.

A new website aims to remedy this. Set up by the entrepreneur MT (Mary Teresa) Rainey, www.horsesmouth.co.uk aims to help anyone who needs advice or just wants to talk a problem through – whether they're confused about love or sexuality, a marriage on the rocks, kids off the rails, or just difficulties getting into the music biz.

The advice on Horsesmouth comes from anonymous mentors, members of the public who give their time freely. And it seems to be taking off. A pre-launch version of the site has been generating 20,000 page views a month, with 4,000 registered mentors and 200 adding their mentoring skills every day.

To be a mentor, you first create a profile, using an assumed user name. You list things that you might be able to help with (you don't need to be an expert, just things you've lived through yourself). People can then search for someone who has been through what they're going through, and you chat via online messages. Finally, you get a bit of feedback from the people you've helped. "We've taken these popular tools and a familiar format, and applied them to the idea that people can share their 'life learnings' and use the web for a great social purpose," Rainey says.

Site users are greeted by something well-designed and geared towards accessibility. Topics people can seek advice on are separated into "Life" (including relationships, religion, health, money and the law); "Work" (careers advice, from how to manage people to striking the right work-life balance), and "Learning" (everything from school to university and beyond). There are sections highlighting recent issues people have sought advice on, and "shout-outs" from new mentors ("mr_matt", "bubbletoes" and so on) offering their services.

Rainey had a successful career in advertising, and set up her own agency in 1993. The company grew into one of the UK's biggest advertising firms. Rainey also sits on many advisory boards.

In 2005, she decided to take a year out. "I didn't want to move abroad," she says. "I had always been involved in more socially aware pursuits and wanted to use my passion for media and communication to create a new media property of public value." It was important to her that the site was not funded by advertising, partly because it puts some users off.

Rainey decided to pursue her own project. She was closely following the development of Web 2.0 – the new wave of "second generation" websites, where user communities generate their own content. She'd seen how social-networking sites and wikis (websites that can be edited by the communities that use them) took off. They all have one thing in common, she says – to facilitate creativity, collaboration and sharing between users.

"I have always been interested in this 'lateral movement' of knowledge and wisdom," she says. "I wanted to combine my communication instincts with a real belief in turning that towards social good." The ultimate aim was to amalgamate the "best elements" of Facebook, Wikipedia and eBay into one place. "But we wanted something new and fit for purpose," she adds.

The entrepreneur began to develop her ideas for a site using her own time and £75,000 of her own money, although in 2006 she gained £1m in funds from the Edge foundation, a publicly funded vocational education organisation.

"We wanted to make mentoring an everyman thing," Rainey says. "Anyone has a right to have a mentor, whatever they are going through in life. We were then able to get the whole thing designed and built, and by the beginning of last year we had a preliminary site up and running."

The whole scheme depends on people coming forward to help others and giving their time without payment. So what motivates people to do it? Andy Pickles, a music producer, has been a site mentor for six months. "I have been in the entertainment industry for 25 years, and since I became a mentor, I've been getting a variety of enquiries. A young lad asked me about getting into the music industry; others have asked me about how to cope with working in a family business, because I have been working in one for a number of years.

"I suppose I'm the kind of person who has a social conscience. I believe we all need a bit of mentoring sometimes. I am a 38-year-old businessman with three kids and I although I have climbed a decent way up the ladder, I could always use some help myself sometimes.

"Horsesmouth lets you give advice in a measured way. I've got a lot on my plate at the moment and can log on to the site and give some advice, and it doesn't get in the way of other things I've got to do."

If you need some incentive to sign up and start helping others, you could take on the "M-factor" challenge. This is a way for those receiving advice to rate the quality of mentors. Those with higher "M-factors" appear higher up when those in need of advice search for topics. It's hoped this will be useful both as an aid to people seeking advice and as motivation for those giving it.

Rainey was very careful about developing an impregnable form of security for the site. She describes the service as "one of the safest places on the web to have conversations with other people". The website requires a mobile number to register and each user is provided with a unique security code, which deters people who are in the business of creating false identities.

Horsesmouth doesn't let people put their faces on the site, replacing this element with "more neutral" symbols. It is professionally moderated.

The site has links with other organisations, such as YouthNet. "We are not trying to replicate anything that's out there," Rainey says. "We link to other resources that offer unique services. It's not a competition, it's about putting people in touch. It's the opposite of Facebook. It's more Heartbook – a more meaningful way for people to get in touch with each other. It liberates people from their looks and how looks stereotype them."

Who you gonna click? Where to find advice online

* Thesite.org

Colourful, chirpy, user-friendly, this is a "first generation" mentoring website in which advice is offered by professionals to young people on any topic, from how to clean up their house after a party to how to get their dream job. Advice on this site is given over a public forum, so there's no one-to-one help.



* Connexions-direct.com

The Government's site for career guidance is aimed at 13- to 19-year-olds living in England. It also supports those up to age 25 with learning difficulties or disabilities.

* Mumsnet.com

This popular parenting advice forum was set up by two women who met at antenatal classes. Visitors can look at the "big issues" of pregnancy and its aftermath – including sleep deprivation problems and potty training – as well as look up useful culinary concoctions for baby foods.



* E-consultancy.com

Mentoring is big in the business world. E-consultancy saw a gap in the market for a round-the-clock online service that would expert advice and support to board directors and senior-tier management teams of big businesses and corporations who don't have the time for face-to-face advice.



* Fionaharrold.com

If you are looking for more traditional life-coaching assistance over the web, Fiona Harrold runs one of the most successful online mentoring services in Britain. For a fee, customers are connected to professional life coaches who can offer advice on a range of personal issues. Courses available include dating confidence, parenting and family finance, and they are all conducted through online correspondence.

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