Your CafÃ© On The Web
Then : BBS, Usenet, IRC, Yahoo! Groups, IMs
Now : Orkut, Ryze, Wallop, Bebo, Friendster, Yahoo! 360o, Tribe, Hi5
When blogs first hit the Internet a few years ago, almost everyone viewed them with suspicion and disdain: "Online diaries? Who cares?"
A lot has changed since. Blogs have made news-both good and bad. While blog-writing is still a long way from being considered mainstream journalism, some bloggers have managed to bag lucrative book deals from publishing houses. Several online organisations have even instituted annual awards for the best blogs in categories ranging from striking design to thought-provoking content.
Blogs have also helped people across the world connect, almost instantly, with people they share interests with. By leaving notes or comments on each other's blogs, and being part of blog-rings, people can now form micro-communities on the Web.
This isn't very different in principle from Internet message boards, or even Yahoo! Groups, blog-rings help personalise the community-one can know more about the person he or she is communicating with, the simple reason being that the writer's thoughts and expressions are recorded on his or her blog.
By Invitation Only
Then, Gmail happened. Gmail used the most potent marketing gimmick ever-exclusivity-to launch its much-hyped 1 GB mail account. Gmail accounts, offered on a trial basis to select bloggers, pushed the ego button: they were available 'by invitation only', causing an online stampede to secure invites-even spawning sites such as gmailswap.com, where people made ludicrous offers in exchange for Gmail invites.
Along with Gmail, Google launched their social networking venture, Orkut (www.orkut.com). Securing membership to Orkut was, again, 'by invitation only'. Orkut shared space with other communities such as Friendster (www.friendster.com), and business networking site Ryze (www.ryze.com), which also organises regular, paid offline events. These events-called Ryze Mixers-are popular with the members of a particular group, and provide them the opportunity to meet people, and develop personal and professional relationships.
Different Strokes For Different Folks
The recently-launched beta versions of Yahoo! 360o (http://360.yahoo.com/) and Microsoft's Wallop (www.mywallop.com) are the new entrants in the social networking realm.
Both let you store and share pictures and music, and provide additional features such as blogs, and the facility to send instant messages via existing instant messenger clients such as MSN, Yahoo! or AOL Messenger. Yahoo! 360o also allows users to send personalised notes to their Yahoo! 360o contacts, which the latter can view on their home pages.
Wallop's Flash interface is groovier than the existing networks. Apart from providing a blogging tool and a music player, Wallop also lets users set up an RSS (Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication) feed-RSS is an XML format for distribution of news headlines on the Internet.
RSS enables bloggers to share their latest entries and other news from across the Web.
Orkut's personalised message boards are popular among its users, but Orkut has had serious issues with speed, with members complaining that pages "take forever" to load. [See box below]
Ryze (www.ryze.com) and LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com) are more serious business networking communities. With a clean, functional interface, Ryze lets you import contacts from your e-mail client. Members can add and remove contacts as they like, and regulate the amount of information that is disclosed to each contact.
LinkedIn is a 'white-collar' business networking community, targeting executives at the CEO/CTO level. It enables companies find suitable candidates, clients, partners and industry experts. Members can invite and apply for job offers listed on the site. Again, membership and referral is strictly by invitation only.
Friendster (www.friendster.com), a global networking community, categorises members by personal details and geographic location. It claims a membership of nearly over 13 million.
Tribe (www.tribe.net) is a compilation of thousands of moderated discussion threads on specific topics, such as, cinema, music, and news. You can post your profile and be part of numerous 'tribes', or special-interest groups.
Hi5 (www.hi5.com) is another popular networking site. Hi5 also enables photo sharing and blogging, along with RSS feeds, and a message board.
Almost all these networking sites are still in the beta or test stage, and need to resolve security and speed issues. By ensuring that members get to decide whom to invite into their networks, theses sites attempt to avoid the entry of online marketers and spam, to which several Yahoo! Groups fall prey.
Six Degrees Of Separation
Social networks attempt to capitalise on the 'Six Degrees of Separation' theory, according to which, each human being is separated from another by no more than six degrees, or six friends' friends (or six clicks, in case of the Internet!)
Whether social networks help you find a good companion, soul mate, life partner or business associate depends largely on your attitude towards online communities: be patient, don't expect miracles, and be honest while communicating with your online buddies.
After all, as Baz Luhrmann said in the 'Sunscreen Song', "Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else's".