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Last Updated: Friday, 12 March, 2004, 13:56 GMT
Fancy joining Bill's network?
Technology analyst Bill Thompson has just signed up for the latest hot social networking site, but only in the interests of research, honest.

I have just joined the Orkut web-based networking service, after being invited to do so by an online friend who works at Greenpeace.

Cast of Friends
You could make friends in a virtual environment
I hesitated for a week after getting his e-mail, because I was not sure it was a good idea.

Orkut is already seen as the Groucho Club of social networking sites, so joining could do even more damage to my credibility in the online world than arguing that Linux might conceivably contain some code that belongs to other people.

It pretends to be exclusive, since you can only join by invitation. It is associated with Google, the mighty lord of search engines, so will eventually be bankrolled by millions of advertising dollars.

And the website has the sort of mildly ironic post-modern self-deprecatory style that we all associate with the worst sorts of reverse snobbery and academic pretension.

Oh - and it 'confesses' to being a beta version, asking us all to be tolerant of bugs, foibles and failed connections.

You almost expect to find Julie Burchill waiting at the virtual door.

Net potential

I would like to make it clear that I have joined in a spirit of intellectual endeavour and exploration, and that my motivation is neither to get a hot date nor to exploit my friendship networks for career advantage.

Bill Thompson
It makes sense to embed our social networks in the electronic network in some way, instead of simply using it as a communications medium for e-mails or texts, or a publishing medium for blogs or diaries or photos
I am in a happy and deeply committed relationship, and I already exploit my friends mercilessly using existing technologies.

But I am seriously interested in the ways that social networking sites are growing, the services they provide and their potential for changing the way that we build and manage our work and friendship networks.

I am not the only one who thinks this stuff could matter.

David Halpern, currently working in the prime minister's strategy unit, will shortly publish Social Capital, a major work which considers how governments can promote more inclusive and engaged communities and build a better society by taking full account of the concept.

I worked with David on the Nexus online think-tank, and I know that he understands the internet and how it is changing the way communities of people come together, organise themselves and evolve or dissipate over time.

He is also in a position to have a lot of influence on the way the government thinks about the network, although I doubt we will ever see Meetup-style MP surgeries.

Orkut, which counts me among its 133,350 members, is only one among many web-based services offering to help manage our social networks. Right now we are in the Cambrian explosion stage for online social networking: there are lots of different models, lots of different services, and lots of different ideas.

And most will quickly become extinct, with only their domain names preserved in the fossil record.

Apart from the purely transactional, like dating sites or business network sites, there are organising tools like Meetup and friendship-based services like Friendster, Emode and Evite.

Even children's sites like Habbo Hotel and Neopets offer community tools on top of the game-playing.

Alpha geeks

It is rare to find a technology that springs fully-formed from its inventors hands, that simply solves a problem and gets adopted. E-mail did it, thirty years ago, and the essentials of creating and sending an electronic message have changed little since.

Computer networks are leading to social ones
When it came to online publishing of information there were several options open to us 15 years ago, including the web, gopher, wais and even archie. It was not obvious that the web would triumph until around 1994.

So it is today with Orkut, Friendster and the others.

They do things in different ways, try to explore different psychological spaces, and hope to be the one to succeed. None is perfect and some have serious flaws, like the Orkut privacy policy which basically claims ownership of all the content created on or through the site.

There will soon be conflicts as the network owners try to make money from their users, and perhaps overstep the mark when it comes to exploiting the personal information that has been entrusted to them. And there will almost certainly be lawsuits and bad publicity for some of them.

At this early stage it is impossible to know who will succeed. The early users seem to be self-styled "alpha geeks": experienced technology users or people who work in the industry.

They make a good experimental population for trying new ideas on, because they are tolerant of failures and can cope with poor interfaces and badly-designed sites.

But the real interest is in building ways to do this which will become as embedded in people's lives as text-messaging or web searching have become.

Future imperfect

For this we need to look to the mass consumer market, the business arena and that nebulous area outside both that SF writer William Gibson calls "the street".

Can physical contact be replaced by electronic tools?
The street, as Gibson puts it, it finds its own use for technology, changing it and using it for purposes that the developers never imagined and probably would not countenance.

Dealing with morally dubious aspects could be the next challenge for those who worry over online content.

However it is clear that net-based support for social and business networks is going to happen.

It makes sense to embed our social networks in the electronic network in some way, instead of simply using it as a communications medium for e-mails or texts, or a publishing medium for blogs or diaries or photos.

It is extremely unlikely that the future will look anything like Orkut does today, but I am sure that we will all learn some interesting stuff as we hang out there. At least, that's my excuse for joining.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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