21st-century social networks

Others were quick to see the potential for such a site, and Friendster was launched in 2002 with the initial goal of competing with popular subscription-fee-based dating services such as Match.com. It deviated from this mission fairly early on, and it soon became a meeting place for post-“bubble” Internet tastemakers. The site’s servers proved incapable of handling the resulting spike in traffic, however, and members were faced with frequent shutdowns. Members were further alienated when the site actively began to close down so-called “fakesters” or “pretendsters.” While many of these were little more than practical jokes (profiles for Jesus Christ or the Star Wars character Chewbacca), some, such as universities or cities, were helpful identifiers within a friends list. Once again, there was a void in the social networking Web, and MySpace was quick to fill it.

Whereas Friendster, as part of its mission as a dating site, initially appealed to an older crowd, MySpace actively sought a younger demographic from its inception in 2003. It quickly became a venue for rock bands to connect with fans and to debut new material. Unlike Friendster, MySpace had the infrastructure to support its explosive growth, and members joined by the millions. In 2005 MySpace was purchased by News Corporation Ltd. (the media-holding company founded by the Australian entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch), and the site’s higher profile caused it to draw scrutiny from legal authorities who were concerned about improper interactions between adults and the site’s massive population of minors.

The spectre of online predators did little to diminish MySpace’s membership (which reached 70 million active monthly users in 2007), but it did open the door for other social networking sites to seize some of its momentum. Facebook took the Classmates.com formula and turned it on its head, with a network that was initially open only to students at universities and high schools. Since its 2004 launch by founders Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskovitz, and Chris Hughes at Harvard University, Facebook has served as an academically oriented alternative to MySpace, claiming millions of unique monthly visitors. LinkedIn, furthermore, draws millions of professionals to its business-networking site. While MySpace and Facebook compete for members in North America, Bebo is a popular site in the United Kingdom, Orkut dominates in Brazil and India, Friendster has recaptured some of its former glory among users in Southeast Asia, and China’s QQ has grown from an instant-messaging service to become a major force in the social networking realm. Perhaps most adventurous has been Ning, which launched the final version of its site in 2007. Ning users create their own social networks from the ground up, using software that requires very little programming expertise. Upgrades, such as personalized domain names and revenue-generating banner advertisements, are purchased on an à la carte basis, and the network software supports a host of third-party applications. These personal networking sites are then displayed in a browsable master index, much like the friends in a standard network profile—in essence, a social networking site for social networking sites.

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