The Right Social Network for You
With hundreds of millions of user accounts, MySpace is the Internet's most recognizable (and reviled) social network. From teenagers to grandmas, seemingly everybody has a page. But Rupert Murdoch's online leviathan may not be the best option for satisfying your Web communication needs. Nimble new startup companies are creating both general-purpose and specialized services--all of them free, just as MySpace is--that could get you a job, find you a date, connect you with friends new and old, and fill your life with beautiful music.
With so many social networks dotting the Web, though, it's hard to know which ones are worth your time and bandwidth. To help clarify things, we examined 17 alternatives to MySpace in five broad categories: general-purpose, special-purpose, taste-based, mobile, and media-sharing social networks. As we discuss our findings, we'll also offer a few tips for maintaining your safety and privacy, finding friends online, and getting the most out of each service.
Though it began in 2004 as an online yearbook for Harvard students, Facebook soon opened its membership to other universities, then high schools, then everyone else. You can search for friends according to their school, city, or work affiliations, and you can join more than one of these networks, allowing you to maintain connections with ex-classmates, neighbors, and coworkers. Using this approach, the site has grown to a staggering 60 million members. Its main features--photo and video sharing, messaging, and public message boards--are similar to those on MySpace, but it eschews the crazy skins and music players that render many MySpace profiles illegible.
Unfortunately, beneath Facebook's clean, blue-and-white facade lies potential risk. Last year, Facebook's controversial Beacon advertising scheme, which made members' online purchases viewable by other members, caused an uproar as members objected to being transformed into unwitting (and uncompensated) product endorsers. If you (reasonably) worry that such a privacy gaffe could recur, you can use Facebook's fine-grained security settings to establish an appropriate level of privacy protection. See "Give Your Facebook Page a Much-Needed Lift" from our December 2007 issue for additional Facebook safety and customization tips.
Unlike Facebook and MySpace, which are essentially about fun and friends, LinkedIn promotes your career or your business. LinkedIn has become one of the most talked-about social networks, and has quickly grown to nearly 20 million members.
Like other social networks, LinkedIn revolves around your personal profile. But instead of displaying lists of your favorite bands and collections of party snapshots, your LinkedIn profile showcases your employment history, your professional skills, and your education and awards, and explains how and why you want to be contacted. To get the most out of your LinkedIn membership, you should make these entries brief, complete, and sparkling, just as you would on any r
Is Twitter really a social network? Yes, but not in the way Facebook and MySpace are. The content that drives Twitter is a relentless stream of real-time personal status postings called tweets, each limited to a maximum of 140 characters. "Going out for more batteries," or "Feeling snacky, I think I'll have a salad" are the stuff of Twitter greatness--as long as tracking your friends' ephemeral actions and mutterings is your cup of tea.
After you've signed up, it's worthwhile to peruse the ever-changing public updates page--to see the variety of ways people use Twitter and to find interesting Twitterers to follow. You can also allow Twitter to search through your e-mail address book to see whether any of your contacts are already Twitter users. In time, other people may follow your tweets, too. If you'd rather not broadcast your posts to the universe, select the 'Protect my Updates' option in Twitter's settings to keep your posts out of the public timeline and approve any followers before they can see your tweets. You can even have Twitter "nudge" you with an e-mail reminder should you forget to post for a while. When you're away from your computer, Twitter permits you to send and receive tweets on your cell phone via SMS or Twitter's mobile Web site. I recently used the latter to keep tabs on Steve Jobs's January Macworld Expo keynote via the twittering of several Mac pundits in the audience.
The problem with the big mass-market social networks is that, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, nobody uses them any more--they're too crowded. How will anyone find your profile among the 400 million MySpace pages? Now, however, thousands of social networking sites have emerged that are built around specific activities, ideas, or interests, or that target particular groups of people, such as Baby Boomers.
Some examples: With help from the no-frills iMedix, you can find information on the Web related to specific conditions or illnesses, and chat with or e-mail other people who have the same concerns. At BlackPlanet.com, African-Americans can connect around various topics or geographic locations; MiGente is a sibling site with similar features intended for the Latino community, and AsianAve.com serves Asian communities. And people who are approaching or already experiencing their golden years can make virtual connections at TeeBeeDee, a site dedicated to social networkers ages 40 and up.
If you can't find an online community that matches your needs, you can build your own. At Ning, you create a customized social network with its own domain name and banner art, individual member profile pages, photo and video sharing, multiple subtopic groups, and discussion forums. Once your custom network is complete, anyone--not just Ning members--can find it in Ning's directory or through the site's keyword tag cluster. Creating a Ning network takes only a couple of minutes: You come up with a name and a domain name (at the end of which the site will add '.ning.com'), enter a description of the network, put in some keyword tags, and insert an icon image, and you're off. To increase the safety and privacy of your network's users, you can make it visible only to members, and you can opt to approve each would-be member or make membership by invitation only.
Despite Steve Jobs's recent assertion that nobody reads anymore, a growing number of sites focus on something almost everyone can relate to: what's on your bedside table. LibraryThing lets you catalog the contents of your library, share your reading preferences with other users, and discover books and authors that you might otherwise have ignored. Are you a fan of Spanish author Ram
You start by adding books to your online catalog one at a time, either by typing in the book's ISBN (International Standard Book Number) or by copying its information from another member's catalog. Alternatively you can find and import multiple books into your catalog by searching for ISBNs on publisher, bookseller, or book review Web pages.
Once you've established your library, LibraryThing can suggest other books for you to read based on the catalogs of members who have similar tastes. Tag-cloud pages for authors and topical keywords permit you to see at a glance what other people are reading. Members with free accounts can catalog up to 200 of their favorite books; unlimited accounts require a $10 annual donation, and a lifetime membership to the site costs $25.
Tired of hearing your same old favorite songs? Wish you could find a bunch more music in the same vein and enjoy those tunes for free? Last.fm's downloadable media player plug-in listens to what you play in your PC's audio player or on your iPod, compares that with the listening habits of Last.fm users with similar tastes, and then suggests music it thinks you'll like. As you click the 'Love' and 'Ban' buttons in response to Last.fm's suggestions, the site learns even more and provides new and different tracks in the same style.
As in the real world, friends on Last.fm are the people who turn you on to great music selections that you would not have known about otherwise; but if you don't end up making many friends at the site, that's okay. You can still browse through the profiles of users who have tastes akin to yours for music that might be to your liking.
Though its purposes are similar to Last.fm's--to find out what kind of music you like and to stream it to you--Pandora runs entirely in your Web browser and relies on people to suggest new music. As you select and listen to songs on Pandora and give them a thumbs-up or -down, the site provides you with new songs that human music evaluators have determined to be similar in style. At any time, you can search for a particular artist, song, or genre, and Pandora will create a whole "radio station" for you, full of music drawn from the same category.
Pandora's social networking features are lightweight. Your profile's half-dozen, optional fields contain nothing terribly revealing about you, but it's enough to introduce yourself--and you can always elect to be completely invisible to others. I couldn't find anyone I knew on Pandora, and the site doesn't offer to search your contacts for existing users. Other fans of the artists or composers you search for do show up on your screen, though, and you can "bookmark" them, as well, to see what they're listening to.
Facebook's photo-sharing feature is great, and you can list your favorite shows, movies, and musicians on your profile page there, but that's it. iMeem takes the sharing of movie and music preferences a step further, combining Facebook-like socializing with MySpace-style embedded players, playlists, and profile themes. When you join, you enter as little or as much information about yourself as you like into your iMeem profile, including your location, your schools and employers, your music, movie, and TV favorites, and other interests. Then you can assemble a list of friends--either by adding specific friends or by having iMeem search your Web-mail accounts for existing iMeem users. You can search for music and videos that you like and add them to your playlist, enjoy others' playlists, and join or create groups dedicated to particular interests, artists, or genres.
Most of the audio and video available on iMeem consists of short clips (with links to iTunes or Amazon pages where you can purchase a downloadable version), but you can also upload entire songs for your own playback. Musicians and directors can upgrade their accounts to free professional versions, which showcase their work and include an iMeem subdomain (like elvispresley.imeem.com). Real movie nuts looking for a community dedicated to watching and discussing film might want to try Flixster.com instead.
Mobile Social Networking
Many social networks offer mobile features, but an emerging field of social networks is designed with the cell phone as the hub. The most practical use of these services appears to involve friends keeping friends apprised of their bar-hopping locations via SMS messages or a phone Web browser so that they can join in the revelry.
Dodgeball, the brainchild of two New York University grad students, provides just such a cell-based location service. After creating a Dodgeball account (by providing your name, city, phone number, and wireless carrier), you start adding friends: Dodgeball detects and sends invites to your Gmail contacts, or you can search the directory of other Dodgeball members. When you hit your favorite saloon and you want your buddies to drop by, you simply send a text message to Dodgeball's SMS code containing the @ symbol and the venue name--a "check-in" in mobile social networking parlance. Dodgeball then fires off a text message to your friends declaring the same (frequent Dodgeball users had better be on an unlimited-text-messaging plan). Other shorthand codes send announcements ("shout-outs") or retrieve venue locations from Google Maps. Dodgeball's main drawback (other than its party focus) is that currently its coverage is limited to just 22 major U.S. cities. Here's hoping that Google, which recently acquired Dodgeball, will soon take steps to expand the service's reach.
Though it was built with cell phone users in mind, Dada.net takes a completely different approach than Dodgeball does. A kind of mobile MySpace, Dada.net lets you create and customize a personalized home page--and more important, upload photos, videos, music, and blog posts. And you can do all of that from your phone's Web browser (or from your PC).
The service makes some of its income from the Google Ads its members view. You can share in the revenue if you have a Google AdSense account: The greater the number of people who see your profile and its ads, the more money you and Dada.net make. For that reason, you'll start receiving friend requests right away from people you don't know; however, the site's privacy settings let you screen out most of those unwanted inquiries.
Dada.net also specializes in hooking you up, and provides a "Love" profile separate from your "Friendship" profile. Many of Dada.net's mobile services are available for free, but some others--including "Love" chats and cell phone ring-tone and wallpaper downloads--require a monthly subscription that can run as high as $10 per month, so be sure to click cautiously.
Media Sharing Sites
Friends on one of the mailing lists to which I subscribe often attach Microsoft Word files containing poems, reports, and other kinds of text to their messages, hoping that someone on the list will read them. Undoubtedly, most recipients simply delete those messages, because e-mail is not a convenient way to share files. Online file storage has boomed in recent years, but eSnips goes beyond simple storage, combining it with networking and creating online communities centered on content categories such as musical styles, painting, poetry, photography, animation, and humor. After you have uploaded your text, audio, image, video, or other type of file to eSnips (using a handy browser toolbar, if you wish), you can opt to share it with the world or with a more select group by e-mail invitation. You can even sell your work through the eSnips Marketplace. eSnips helps you find like-minded people among its reported 4 million users by creating a statistical analysis of your uploaded content, called your "SocialDNA," and matching it with that of other users. Each account receives 5GB of storage for free, currently with no additional storage options.
The Scribd service differs from its competitor eSnips in one important way: It has no storage limits. In fact, you don't even need to sign up for an account to upload files--just browse over and click the big green upload arrow. You do need to sign in with a user account if you want to maintain ownership of the files you upload, however, and you must designate who can see them or delete them later on. In addition, logging in lets you specify whether your files are private, either making them invisible to everyone else until you send out e-mail invitations or marking them as publicly viewable.
Used in combination with Scribd's bulk file uploader, the service can act as a handy limitless online backup tool, or as an alternative to Flickr's limited accounts. Scribd arranges your uploaded content into topical groups, as eSnips does, but Scribd doesn't suggest files it thinks you'll like--a feature you may be willing to give up in exchange for unlimited storage.
How Safe Is Social Networking?
In light of a high-profile cyberbullying and suicide case on MySpace last year, many social network users--and the parents of teenage MySpacers, especially--are thinking twice about the wisdom of spending life online.
Midwestern mom Mary (not her real name) has a deal with her high-school-age daughter that her MySpace profile must be private, shielding her from all but her known, real-world friends. But when the 15-year-old created a fictional female MySpace character with her 14-year-old friend, who was still in middle school, they made the account public and soon began chatting with an older high-school boy. Then, the middle-schooler agreed to meet the boy in person, triggering a crisis in both girls' families.
"When you get to make up somebody, they're exciting, they're more adventurous than you really are," says Mary, who was unhappy with the fake account but even more shocked that it progressed to a face-to-face meeting.
Kate Casavecchia Crisp, director of a Boulder, Colorado-based nonprofit organization, has weathered online dangers, too, but continues to participate actively at social networking sites. She has employed more than a dozen social sites, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Ning, and Twitter, to promote her organization's education and advocacy goals, attracting the occasional loony along the way.
"I got stalked by a crazy in a group I led for awhile," she recalls, after kicking the woman out of a discussion group for repeatedly cursing at other members. The episode has made her wary of posting her photo in online profiles, so she often replaces it with a cartoony avatar. "These virtual types, some of them are scary," she says. "I don't want to run into them at the market."
Magazine publisher Waylon Lewis says his company used a MySpace page to promote parties and other events for its yoga-culture magazine, Elephant, until the page began attracting so much porn spam that he had to abandon the effort. But Lewis's story has a happy ending: His company fled from MySpace to Facebook, and he finds it a great place to publicize events and build community around the magazine. Lewis says his Facebook inbox is completely spam-free, but he wonders whether that, too, might pass if Facebook's ownership or policies change: "I didn't used to get triple-X spam on MySpace."
Glossary of Social Networking Terms
Add: n. The act of gaining a new friend, and social networking's common currency, as in "Dude, thanks for the add."
Block: v. To configure your social networking service to prevent a particular user from contacting you or viewing your profile.
Check-in: n. In mobile social networking, an electronic message that alerts your group of friends that you have arrived at the local pub and are ready to party.
Cyberbully: v. To attack, harass, or ridicule a fellow community member via posted text, video, or other electronic means.
Defriend: v. The inverse of adding a friend, and the very epitome of coldness. Same as unfriend.
Faceslam: v. To ignore a Facebook friend request from someone you don't know and/or wish would just go away.
Facestalk: v. To scan, jealously, the Facebook profiles and photos of people you know, are going out with, or are going out with in your dreams.
Friend: v. To request that another user add you as a friend--sometimes an awkward moment for the social networker.
MySpace Suicide: n. The act of deleting one's MySpace account forever.
Nudge: v. On Twitter, to send a message notifying someone you follow that they're not posting frequently enough.
Poke: n. On Facebook, a feature that lets other users know that you're looking at their profile, and possibly stalking them.
RL: n. Real life--the world of flesh, bone, and face-to-face meetings that existed before the Web browser.
Slurping: n. The ability of most social networks to import your Web-based mail contacts to see if any are already on the service. Watch out for slurpers that spam every contact with membership invites.
Twitterrhea: n. A condition resulting in an excess of Twitter posts. For even more Twitter jargon, see the Twitter Fan Wiki's glossary.