Friends like these

Social networks are the next big thing: flirt or swap gossip online with people just like you. So what's the catch? Wendy Grossman reports


You are connected to 0 people through 0 friends. Grow your network now!

You are connected to 0 people through 0 friends. Grow your network now!

It starts with an e-mail message from your friend John inviting you to join something you've never heard of: Orkut. Your first thought is Groucho Marx's dictum: "I wouldn't join any club that would have me as a member." After all, you already belong to eight online communities, write a daily journal known as a "blog", get e-mail, and have four instant messaging services, two permanently open chat channels and two phones. You are connected to the nth degree. Do you really need this?

But this friend is founder of a hi-tech company, bright and knowledgeable about the Net. Has the party moved somewhere you didn't know about? So you click on the link and create a user ID. Then you see your empty profile: pages and pages of detail, everything from the kind of humour you like and your full street address to your sexual orientation and whether you drink or smoke. You balk and e-mail your friend, "Yes, yes, but what's it for?"

Orkut is one of several "social networking" services, the Web's latest fad. Social networking isn't new; back when the Web was a baby, SixDegrees began trying to map the network of social relationships. Then came Friends Reunited, and, when blogging hit, LiveJournal arrived. For a long time you could set up a blog on LiveJournal only if you were invited by an existing member. Bloggers there maintain lists of friends, whose new entries the service compiles into a single page. Those friends also have special reading privileges, in that you can lock specified entries away from the public. The site, which now has 2.4 million members, also lets you list interests and browse the blogs of others who share them.

The newer crop of social networks - Friendster, Tribe.net, LinkedIn, ZeroDegrees - are more purely aimed at connecting people who may not know each other but already have friends or colleagues in common: Friendster, the oldest, claims more than a million members.

You are connected to 7 people through 1 friend. Grow your network now!

When you first log on, there isn't much to look at, at least on Orkut: links to your friends' profiles, and buttons to click on to "view friends" or "view network". Since you have only one friend, the person who invited you, your network is tiny, a single photo (if your friend uploaded one), with a link to that person. Now what? You click on the photo, and you get their profile and network of friends. Click on one of those, and you get the friend-of-a-friend's (FOAF's) profile, plus another cluster of photos: her friends. More clicking on photos. Ah, embedded at FOAF-2 is someone else you know. Cool.

To some extent, all these services are based on the "small world" notion that everyone on the planet is separated by six degrees or less. That idea came from 1960s research by Stanley Milgram that involved asking people to attempt to get letters to complete strangers by sending them to intermediaries. More recent research suggests that the six degrees isn't universal, that we are unevenly connected in clumps that may or may not connect to each other.

A day later, the FOAF-2 sends you an Orkut-generated message asking permission to add you as a friend. You click yes. Why not? You still have not filled out your profile because that's work, and you have ignored "Grow your network now!" because that means authorising the service to e-mail invitations to your non-Orkutted friends. You still aren't sure what this thing is. How can you inflict it on anyone?

You are connected to 82 people through 2 friends. Grow your network now!

To talk to anybody, you must join a "community" - a new-fashioned word for conferences, message boards, forums, newsgroups or bulletin boards. Orkut is two months old, and its communities are correspondingly little-trafficked. "The system," says Nicko, an English FOAF, "allows people to find other people on the edges of their network of acquaintances (which provides a degree of assurance about the type of person he or she is), who share similar interests, without being restricted by physical locality. There are more people in San Francisco who share my interests than there are in Cambridge, but I'm less likely to run into them at parties since I live 5,000 miles away."

Friendster is aimed at dating and social networking. LinkedIn and ZeroDegrees are geared toward jobs. Orkut tries to do both, and derives its cachet from being invitation-only and from having been set up by Google programmer Orkut Buyukkokten. To get in, you have to know someone. Or you can look on eBay, where Orkut invitations are offered for sale for about $2. In the early days, when invitations were scarce and only one degree of separation from Google employees, one went for as much as $11.

A lot of people on these networks say the biggest thing they use it for is browsing the network, like trading baseball cards. Still, it's kind of intriguing to browse through the FOAFs and FOAFs of FOAFs and see how they all interconnect. The problem is that these sites are binary worlds. Someone is your friend or he's not. He's not an acquaintance, boss, useful contact, ex-lover, former co-worker, or sometime fishing buddy. In real life, notes Danah Boyd, who studies these networks, you will hear people make the distinction: "He's my Friendster".

You are connected to 24,140 people through 4 friends. Grow your network now!

The point about these services is that they spread exponentially outward from their founders. If Jonathan Abrams, founder of Friendster, signs up eight buddies, and each signs up three or four people, and they each... Clearly a FOAF-3 somewhere on your fringes has been e-mailing everyone he's ever met in his life and they've all accepted. Look around the Net, and you'll find comparative reviews of the services and comic guides to "decoding" user profiles reminiscent of those guides that explain property-speak. Oh, and incoming venture capital. Late last year LinkedIn picked up $4.7m in venture capital and Friendster pulled in $13m. The sites are not particularly expensive to set up, especially since the clients do all or most of the marketing for you. But the fact of the investments leads many to wonder what the eventual source of revenue might be.

The Australian privacy advocate and consultant Roger Clarke thinks the key has to be the collection of personal data generated by the sites' users, even though all the sites stress they will not sell such data.

"The only logical business model is the value of consumers' data," he says. "Networking is about viral marketing, and that's one of the applications of social networking. It's social networks in order to achieve economic networks." The privacy fears are biggest in relation to Orkut because of its association with Google. (And those fears have heightened with the announcement of Google's ad-supported email service.)

"It's very worrisome, because of the enormous amount of profile information that Google could have built up," says Clarke. All that data could, he argues, be cross-linked to searches, so that Google could build up a massive set of supremely detailed consumer profiles. The personalised search service Eurekster does something like that: personalises searches by filtering the query through friends you specify. It may be even more important that many of these social networks appeal to the prized under-30 demographic. More than 60 per cent of Orkut's membership is (or claims to be) between the ages of 18 and 30; approximately half of LiveJournal's users are 13 to 30.

You are connected to 126,286 people through 4 friends. And not one of them ever writes, ever calls. Grow your network now!

network@independent.co.uk

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