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Picking a Social Network – Sites Fight to Stay Fresh Amid Competition

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aug7lowreshomespun.jpgBy Tim Barker

RISMEDIA, August 7, 2008-(MCT)-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.

But in an arena that grows more competitive each day, the personality of the individual sites becomes increasingly important in attracting and keeping people. It’s no longer enough to simply offer a way to share thoughts, music and photos.

The novelty is wearing off.

Heavyweights MySpace and Facebook face 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?

Most people don’t have the time, energy or inclination to stake out so many corners of the Internet.

Like Reuben Malicoat of Swansea, Ill., they make a choice.

After a two-year stint with MySpace, the former Marine decided-after a few days on Facebook-he needed a new home for his social networking. MySpace users, he said, are a little too absorbed in socializing and partying.

“At 23, I’ve got to start thinking about the future,” Malicoat said. “It’s more of a mature crowd. I’m not saying they don’t drink. But they don’t show pictures of themselves puking.”

But what’s ideal for Malicoat, does nothing for Ali Thornsberry of St. Charles, Mo., who sees Facebook, with its Ivy League origins, as stodgy and restrictive. It’s one of the big differences between the two sites-MySpace grants users freedom to customize their pages, while Facebook enforces a uniform appearance. Some call MySpace garish; others tout its free-wheeling ways.

“MySpace seems more modern-looking,” Thornsberry said. “It appeals to my eye. Facebook just seems like it’s old.”

For a site that’s been around for just over four years to be branded “old” demonstrates one of the challenges facing social networks. 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.

In the young social networking arena, shifts are inevitable in the days ahead, said Keith Hampton, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communications.

“There will definitely be new ones,” Hampton said. “It’s really only a matter of time before one of them, Facebook or MySpace, starts to decline in popularity and another one rises to take its place.”

The two heavyweights have been locked in a battle for social networking supremacy ever since Facebook opened its doors to the masses in September 2006. Until then, it focused primarily on high school and college students.

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.

“LinkedIn is for people I would do business with,” said Joshua Jeffryes of Ferguson, Mo., who is active in a half-dozen or so social networking sites. “Facebook is for people I might go out with for a beer. But that I might also do business with.”

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.

Plus, no one’s really figured out how to harness the power of the thing, said Dean Terry, director of emerging media at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“Once people really understand it, I think you’ll really see some new stuff,” Terry said.

He also sees 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.”

This could eventually push people toward smaller, more intimate networks. And it could be one of the factors in the surging popularity of microblogging through networks like Twitter, Spoink and Identi.ca.

But not everyone gets the appeal of these short-Twitter allows only 140 characters-messages that often detail the minutiae of the authors’ lives.

Certainly not Abby Schwarz of St. Louis.

That’s one of her complaints about Facebook, which allows users to publish short status updates telling what they’re doing right now.

“Geez. I don’t want to know what you had for breakfast or what color your underwear is,” said Schwarz, a longtime fan of MySpace. “I guess young people like that kind of thing.”

© 2008, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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