Social-networking sites grow popular

Friendzy: This Texas-based Web site has been very successful at encouraging real-world relationships and activities.

April 29, 2004|By Aman Batheja | Aman Batheja,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

FORT WORTH, Texas - Cynthia Johns wondered whether she had made a mistake in moving to Arlington, Texas.

Her husband had left Los Angeles with their two children after the couple separated, and Johns had followed to be closer to the children.

"It was very hard to move away from L.A. My whole life was there," said Johns, 45.

She had left a job she loved as a restoration artist and didn't know how to make local connections. She also craved emotional support.

"My life was all in flux. I didn't know anyone, and in the past, my friends have been like my family circle," Johns said.

Then she read a newspaper article about Friendzy, a Dallas-based Web site for social networking.

Within weeks, the Dallas-Fort Worth area was beginning to feel like home.

"For someone like me, Friendzy was very important," Johns said. "It's definitely been a base camp for everything that's happening with me. It's just helped me so much."

Friendzy is one of scores of so-called social-networking Web sites that have sprouted up in the past year. But while others have been aiming nationally, if not globally, Friendzy has focused its efforts locally.

Thousands of local users have formed an online community that has led to real-world relationships and activities.

"The computer is just a way to facilitate meeting people," Friendzy President Alex Chang said. "They don't want to have something that's just virtual."

Chang developed the idea for the site with his brother Roger. It was officially launched in October and has attracted more than 50,000 users in six months.

Those numbers pale in comparison to those of the king of social-networking sites, Friendster, which has more than 5 million members. Smaller up-and-comers include Tribe.net, Orkut and MySpace.

Steve Jones, founder of the Association of Internet Researchers, said the popularity of the sites is not surprising.

For years, Internet users have created communities through e-mail lists, chat rooms and message boards, he said.

"There's always been a degree of self-organization on the Internet, and these sites have just taken that to the next level," said Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

All social-networking sites work on the same premise: The friends of your friends should be your friends, too.

Most of the sites are free. Members pick a user name and provide information such as sex, occupation, hometown, hobbies and interests. Many members also post a photo of themselves.

Users develop a friend network, the first level being someone they know in person or online. On the second level, users meet people through first-level friends. With most sites going into six levels or more, networks can easily include tens of thousands of people.

Sites such as Sixdegrees.com had limited success with social networking in the late 1990s. Timing may have been the problem, since Friendster gained enormous popularity last year with virtually the same premise.

Silicon Valley has since become enthralled with the social-networking model. Investors have thrown millions into Friendster and its numerous clones. Internet giants such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have all launched social-networking sites or said they plan to.

Many sites have tried to be niche Friendsters, focusing on making friends, schmoozing business prospects or finding love.

Friendzy, largely by virtue of its laid-back, nonintrusive approach, has provided all three and just about everything in between.

"We're just trying to make Friendzy mirror everyday human relationships," Alex Chang said. "It's like real life. You never know what's going to come out of a relationship."

Many social-networking sites have encouraged members to meet in person. Some have even arranged events for them.

Local Friendzy users have set up their own gatherings.

"We were very surprised that people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area started getting on here and started organizing little happy hours before we could do that for them," said Carlos Garcia, a content developer for Friendzy.

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