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E-conomy / Paul Andrews
Social networking beginning to take shape on the Web


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Since the Internet's shrinkage of time, distance and the global village first became apparent, it's been a Christmas tradition of mine to examine online prospects for closer community and world peace.

While each passing year has brought the Net more users and faster communications, it's also true that meaningful connections have lagged. Beyond e-mail, the amount of true interactivity among people on the Internet has been fairly circumscribed — often by traditional demarcations of nationality, culture and creed.

But the connection revolution continues. The latest wrinkle: "social networking," a new expression for an old concept. Not only is the techie crowd abuzz, the concept is drawing political, business and venture-capital involvement.

You know something's going on when the money and power crowds get interested.

Social networking sounds like a roundabout term for dating, and in some ways it is. A new Web site, Friendster.com, connects friends of friends in an ever-widening spoke-and-wheel linkage that draws on but goes beyond elements of pioneers Classmates.com and Match.com.

Despite its founder's protests, though, Friendster retains the feel of friends "setting up" friends online.

In some ways, Friendster is already so last year. Tribe.net may be the true friend connector, purporting to connect people looking for all kinds of things in common. A lot of its tribal connectivity has to do more with transactions, however, than sociability.

For Web loggers, XFN — the XHTML Friends Network — enables coding links to other bloggers with a "rel" (relationship) tag. With enough participation, tagging eventually can permit virtual friendship-building.

Full-bore in the business world, LinkedIn is getting a lot of traction among digerati. LinkedIn posits that business friends and associates are a great way to find good hires. For a journalist like me, LinkedIn is a rich resource of contacts with a high likelihood of being authoritative and trustworthy.

If Adam Smith isn't quite your globalized cup of tea, there's always Freecycle. This is the online equivalent of the college-campus "free box" that supplied much of my daughter's wardrobe during her Evergreen State College years. On Freecycle there's no bartering or auctioning. You just post stuff to give away and take stuff others are offering. If you happen to make friends along the way, more's the better.

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To my mind, all of the above pales next to the most dynamic and transformational social-network revolution of all — politics. The Internet is finally beginning to fulfill its potential for bonding and mobilizing political constituencies.

Much has been written about presidential candidates' use of the Net, primarily for fund raising but also for communicating policy statements and platforms.

The bigger story may be organizations like MoveOn.org, which has raised millions and organized house parties nationwide for a recent Iraq documentary showing. There's also Meetup.com, which candidates use to organize neighborhood gatherings.

The Net has a long way to go before it reaches critical mass for connecting people. There's still no real online equivalent to the geographic neighborhood, for instance.

Wireless devices, faster networks (broadband and wireless), and anytime, anywhere computing will aid in the effort. Anonymity and pseudonymity will have to ebb for communities to gain real traction. At the same time, privacy concerns will need to be addressed.

But the notion of social networking, long in the offing, is taking root. I was talking about the topic with a Silicon Valley entrepreneur recently whose response could be summed up in his question: "Yes, it's compelling. But how do you make any money off of it?"

Howard Dean, who bypassed the $45 million campaign-finance limit because of his fund-raising capacity on the Net, has one answer.

As for the rest, I have no doubt commercialization opportunities will present themselves. Build a new community, and a marketplace is never far behind.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates." He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com.

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