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Friend Frenzy

Call them the networks of the future. Networking sites and mobile technologies may cause a broad shift in the shape of your social circle.


Janeen Levin has a well-connected social life.

When the 34-year-old project manager from Pacifica, Calif., wants to jazz up her offline activities, she turns online. She recently doubled the size of her book club to 40 by putting up a post on Craigslist, frequently turns to Citysearch to find out where to eat and what's going on, and regularly sends out online invitations via Evite.

She joined Friendster as soon as it launched earlier this year and uses it to connect with old friends. Not to mention that she met her current boyfriend -- and her prior two exes -- through online dating.

"I can't imagine a world where we don't have these types of options and technologies," says Ms. Levin, who manages her schedule and contacts with a Palm device and keeps in touch with a cellphone. "They've revolutionized the way people meet people and the way people stay in touch with people."

A busy social life isn't what it used to be. In the past year, a slew of new services (see chart below) have made it easier than ever to expand and maintain a social circle -- to keep and revive friendships struck as long ago as junior high and befriend complete strangers. Even more elaborate networking systems -- some using satellite locators -- are in the works.

The Year of the Friend

Networking sites mapping out previously invisible relationships of friends' friends and business associates have seen explosive growth. Take social networking site Friendster, which launched in March and now has three million members, or five-month-old Tribe.net that counts 57,000 members.

More people -- especially job seekers or work-at-homers -- are also using sites like Craigslist (www.craigslist.org) and Meetup (www.meetup.org) to find people to hang out with during the day. Social networking has even had its first fad: flashmobs, which are "spontaneous" performance-art pieces organized by e-mail. Slower to take off are location-based cellphone services, which allow people to locate friends and potential mates. About 17,000 Match.com members now have profiles on MatchMobile's cellphone service offered by AT&T Wireless Services Inc.

Further evolutions are expected at existing sites, and new technologies are on the horizon.

"We're just at the beginning of seeing this big change," says Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor at the Interactive Telecommunications program at New York University, who says the shift is a result of society's transformation from being industrial and agrarian to urban and information orientated. He says people have made the underlying switches to computers and networks, but society always lags behind technology. "Now, we're finally seeing the invention of new tools and social structures for dealing with social life in this changed world," Prof. Shirky says.

To be sure, online social networking is still a small part of most people's lives. For example, the 1.75 million unique visitors Friendster logged in October only represent slightly more than 1% of the total Internet population, according to comScore Networks. And some people have tried various networking sites, only to drop out once the site tightens its rules (as Friendster has) or once they get disenchanted with the idea.

Though many of the new social tools have been tried in some form in the past, for a number of reasons they haven't caught on until recently.

For example, a social networking site called Sixdegrees.com launched in the late 1990s, but many found its technology too cumbersome for slow Internet connections. Since then, however, more people have broadband access, the interface of building a profile online has become easier for both users and sites and the use of digital photos has gone mainstream.

Weak and Strong Ties
In addition, some experts say a weak economy makes people more eager to network with strangers -- both for job leads and to replace workplace water-cooler gossip networks. Plus, the growing popularity of online dating has made people more open to the idea of applying technology to the nonromantic aspects of their social lives.

For example, an annual survey done on the Internet by UCLA's Center for Communication Policy found that in 2002, 21% of Internet users had met someone in person who they first met online, compared with only 12% in 2000.

With the help of technology, people's offline social networks are becoming larger and filled with many more "weak" ties. While close friends tend to already know the same gossip and information, weak ties are "important for accessing information and resources that people can't get from strong ties," says Keith Hampton, an assistant professor of technology, urban and community sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

For example, Jennifer Crawford, a 33 year old from Fairfax, Va., found about 10 fellow lovers of pug dogs by posting an activity listings on Evite. She plans to have a "pug party" where they can talk about their dogs. "There's no way I could have networked offline within a week and found 10 to 12 other people who would want to get together for something like this," Ms. Crawford says.

People are also able to keep social networks alive longer than before. For instance, says Prof. Shirky, college social networks had a very short life until recently. "But with this new stuff in place, that fabric comes apart much more slowly," he says.

Ms. Levin says she has reconnected and keeps in touch with many of her friends from junior high school, with the help of Friendster. "It's an opportunity to keep the relationships going in the past that before we has these things probably would have fallen by the wayside," she says.

The new tools also enable people to socialize at times when before they couldn't. Take Nicolle Ferrier, 28, from Laguna Niguel, Calif., who handles government relations for a civil-engineering company. She started using MatchMobile to find prospective dates this summer when she was on long driving trips for work. "Before, I thought it was boring driving four hours in traffic," she says. "But now, I feel like I'm accomplishing something." Ms. Ferrier met her current boyfriend that way in September.

These tools also mean people are more spontaneous when planning their social lives. The downside: more lateness and backing out of plans. Skeptics note that some of the new tools, especially the networking sites, create unnatural relationships, since people aren't automatically always friends with their friends' friends.

In addition, some fear the new technologies mean the chance relationships --where people bump into each other and start a friendship -- are on the decline. Instead, when people are in public they're now busy talking on cellphones or worrying about logging on.

Looking ahead, networking sites are expected to go through further evolution, and new location-based cellphone technology could be around as early as next year.

Industry watcher Ross Rubin, a senior analyst at eMarketer, predicts that big online players such as America Online, Yahoo Inc. or Microsoft Corp.'s MSN will eventually get into the networking space and spread it beyond the twentysomething and thirtysomething populations where it is now popular.

"I think the big players that have the largest communities on the Web today are sitting back and waiting to see how this all shakes out," Mr. Rubin says.

Futuristic Networks

Elsewhere, MIT's Prof. Hampton just finished a prototype of social networking location-based service based on e911 -- an emergency system mandated by the Federal Communications Commission that pinpoints emergency calls from cellphones geographically using satellites.

Users of Prof. Hamptom's software create a profile and list of buddies. Then, they can tell when a buddy -- or a buddy's buddy -- is near them.

"The idea is to increase urban serendipity, reinforce contact amongst existing social ties, and expand the diversity of people's social ties by introducing them to new social contacts," says Prof. Hampton, who says he is searching for a cellphone operator to work with on the project.

A group at Intel, meanwhile, is working on building a device that lets people visualize the relationships they have to strangers they see around them everyday, called "familiar strangers."

The device lights up when such strangers who also have devices are around and researchers predict this will help people more easily formulate ideas about the places around them (is this a good bar or restaurant?) as well as perhaps more easily connect with those familiar faces. For example, the device of a person on a trip would light up when someone familiar is nearby, and that in turn might encourage conversation.

The device could be incorporated into cellphones or wireless devices within two years, says Eric Paulos, a research scientist at Intel's new Research Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., who leads the project.

Further down the road, experts predict flash mobs evolving into flash singles scenes, and expect to see more restaurants and bars incorporate messaging and other communications technologies for their patrons.

To be sure, however, some people plan to stick on the sidelines as the social revolution occurs. Arana Shapiro, a 27-year-old teacher in New York, says she shies away from incorporating technology into her social life. "I've never actively tried to meet people through Web sites," says Ms. Shapiro, who also prefers a Filofax, and prefers to meet people at work or through friends.

Experts say such people will likely be no worse off. "There's no reason to assume that these people will be more isolated," Prof. Hampton says. "They may just have very good social networks already."

Both the unwired Ms. Shapiro and the wired Ms. Levin both say they have met about 10 new friends this year.

Write to Jennifer Saranow at jennifer.saranow@wsj.com

Updated December 10, 2003 7:01 p.m.

Chart with the story:


Here's a look at some of new sites, services and technologies launched -- or increasingly popular -- this year that could change your social life.

January: Yahoo Personals adds video and audio, becoming the first major online dating site to do so

February: Match.com announces cellphone-dating service MatchMobile

March: A new approach to online dating, Friendster, hits the scene

July: Combination networking and classified site Tribe launches

September: Eliyon Technologies announces a consumer networking product

October: Personality site Emode launches networking site "Tickle"

* Business networking site Ryze.com revamps to emphasize social networking.
* Monster.com launches a professional networking site

November: Evite redesigns its Web site to let users promote and find local public events, communicate with other event attendees and find activity partners. Evite predicts 71.9 million Evites will be sent in 2003, compared with 41.5 million last year.

* Craigslist says it had about 128,000 postings for activity partners in 2003 so far, vs. 61,000 for the same period last year.

* December: Time Warner Inc's America Online Inc. launches a preview version of love.com, a dating site built around its AOL Instant Messenger. In 2004, AOL plans to have the service work with wireless providers.


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