Unlike online Instant Messaging or Chat communities (such as AIM, Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, or ICQ), social networks (or "virtual communities") can be defined as groupings of people with similar intents, if not interests. Their purpose is relatively simple, to use the internet to allow people to interact with people they most likely would have little or no chance of coming into contact with otherwise, whether due to social cliches, geographical boundaries, or other obstacles. Consider it a veritable successor to or perhaps even "evolution" from having a "pen pal".
The approach of each individual website differs, depending on which type of person or "crowd" that website is trying to attract... And as with just about any type of business, there are often just as many if not more of that type of business that will fail, than succeed. Keeping that in mind, this is by no means intended to be a complete or encompassing report or listing as to every last social networking site ever to grace our beloved internet. That said, let us get to it.
One of the first notable websites to introduce online social networking would be HoTMaiL Personals, created sometime in 1995 (sometimes shortly following the induction of Hotmail, but before it's commercialization with Microsoft) which allowed users to link personals ads to their already existing Hotmail accounts. The popularity of the website lasted until approximately 2000, and since then the website has undergone several make-overs to the point that any sort of social networking is almost hidden within the mass of Hotmail, MSN and other Passport.net live links (and/or link rot).
An even more notable entry into the ring of social networking sites is the still-running Classmates.com, again, created sometime in 1995. While HoTMaiL Personals took an approach derived from the concept of personal ads (such as those in newspapers), Classmates.com focus of operation was to allow members to find, connect (or re-connect) with, and keep in touch with friends met throughout the various stages of their lives, via school - be it anywhere from Elementary to Graduate (extended to include places of employment and the various Armed Forces). This flexible form of exclusivity allowed for Classmates.com to attract a certain, albeit wide-based, type of user - something that would become more and more common in succeeding social networking sites.
Perhaps motivated by the success of the two aforementioned websites, HoTMaiL Personals and Classmates.com were quickly followed up an almost countless number of successors - from imitators (SixDegrees, Yahoo! Personals/Geocities) to abstract takes on the original form (Live/DeadJournal, Xanga) - which took turn to focus on literature, music, movies and their review(s/ing), as well as online journals (or "weblogging"/"blogs"). For the most part, all of the aforementioned sites have carried on in some form or another (with the exception of SixDegrees.com, which was sold to YouthStream Media Networks in 2000 for $120M USD) - but none would become a true social "meme" until the introduction of Friendster in 2002.
Friendster targeted itself at the group which made it's precursors most popular - young adults from North America (most particularly the United States), Europe (most particularly England/United Kingdom) and Asia (most particularly Japan) aged about 18 to 29. Establishing a format that many succeeding sites would use as a template, each user created an online profile (or "identity") by filling out a questionnaire profile and uploading a user picture, then defining a gallery of friends - either by interacting with friends already using the site, seeking out people who use the site, or inviting friends to join. The service would then integrate these galleries, using the so-called "small world phenomenon" to allow people to always interact with a friend-of-a-friend(multiplied to whatever exponential value necessary), and not simply a random or unknown person (such as is often associated with spam eMails or Instant Messaging/Chat programs).
Friendster's approach, blending the successful aspects of its precurors and leaving out the less popular features, would set the standard for almost every subsequent social networking site that would be met with any sort of popularity. Friendster's focused targeting (aiming the site not only at the youth market, but targeting single youths) would also be heavily borrowed by following sites, most notably - MySpace.com.
Currently the most popular website in the United States (accounting for approximately 4.7% of all website visits originating from the US)*, MySpace.com was born of the integration of "blogging" (as preceeded by LiveJournal or Xanga), user profiles (as preceeded by Friendster), grouping (mostly provided by the seperation of websites - i.e., Friendster for dating, SixDegrees.com for "underground" socializing, or even Ryze for business networking), and an internal eMail system (perhaps borrowing from the original concept of Hotmail Personals).
MySpace has gradually gained more popularity than similar sites (such as Friendster, LiveJournal, or Classmates.com) to get the highest hit count of all English-language social networking websites. It has become an increasingly influential part of contemporary pop culture, especially in the Anglosphere. MySpace currently has just over 95 million members (although the number of "unique" members is almost impossible to determine) and gets about 500,000 new members each week.
... But MySpace was not always the social networking giant it stands as today, nor was it always poised to become such. Before the creation of the current social networking website, the MySpace.com domain name was registered in 1998 to an online storage and file sharing firm. Registration was free and users were able to obtain a small disk quota which would gradually increase if they referred new members to the site. Due to slow service and a lack of revenue, the original site shut down sometime in late 2001.
The current MySpace service was founded in July 2003 by current president Tom Anderson (the popular "first friend" of each profile created), current CEO Chris DeWolfe, and a small team of programmers. It was partially owned by Intermix Media, which was bought in July 2005 for $580 million by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (the parent company of Fox Broadcasting and other media enterprises).
Borrowing from the now-popular (or even "standard", as will be addressed later) Friendster format, each profile contains several "blurbs" including "About Me" and "Who I'd Like to Meet", as well as sections detailing the users' musical, cinematic, literary, and other tastes. A standard questionnaire is used to determine details such as marital status, physical appearance, and income. Taking the Friendster format a bit further, each profile also allows for the user to post "blog" entries, further allowing MySpace to be a more "all-encompassing" type of social site.
Although MySpace is more oriented toward the youth market, there are many people who are making careers out of promotion on MySpace. From bands, to celebrities, to exotic car dealers, many people have found MySpace to be an invaluable tool for advocating their goods and services. Like Friendster before it, MySpace has now spawned many imitators (and thus, competitors) - such as Facebook and TagWorld, but the most notable product of the popularity of MySpace has to be the Friendster patent approval.
On June 27th, 2006 - Friendster received a patent (US Patent no. 7.069.308) that covers online social networks, one the company had applied for long before its decline and recent recapitalization.
The patent is extremely general in its terms, covering the basic steps involved in joining a social network: entering a personal description and relationships to other users, mapping relationships and degrees of separation, and connecting to others through these friends. In such, seemingly covering the activities of many other social networking sites, especially those such as LinkedIn, that allow people to connect within a certain number of "degrees of seperation", which would leave the proverbial door open for MySpace's "Top Friends" to become a talking point of the patent's details.
In its simplest terms, the patent is referred to as a “system, method, and apparatus for connecting users in an online computer system based on their relationships within social networks." And although the Friendster patent could be challenged in either the patent system or the courts, opponents would face an uphill battle. “Once the patent is issued there is a presumption of validity that follows with it,” said attorney Bill Heinze in representation of Friendster.
The patent is more of a moral victory for the now-struggling Friendster, as even though it still counts 9-to-10 million users, the company has been consistently losing momentum in the global networking market, mostly to MySpace.com. Many users and former users cite heavy "lag" or "loading" times, as well as a lack of the diversity offered by MySpace as reasons for their leaving the site.
This sort of situation treads the fine line between property and intellectual property, which warrants a full-length discussion of its own. Another situation provided by the awarding of the Friendster patent, is the possible monopolization of the social networking class of websites - further pushing the ongoing internet properties debate into the political forum.
As stated before, for each popularized website, there are quite literally tens of thousands that fail just as miserably as those which succeed (only in opposing terms), and while chronicling the popular websites may be a task of its own - finding all the ones that either haven't or haven't yet made it through the glass ceiling is ten times the effort. Here is a short overview of some of those that haven't:
The Black Stripe
The Student Center
Wireless World Forum
Yahoo! 360/Yahoo! Personals
... And while it can be argued that many of these sites are popular in a specific region or among a particular group of people - the overall popularity does not match that of the previously referenced sites.
... Glorifying MySpace, TagWorld, FaceBook, FaceParty - or any other "social networking" site for doing the same job as eMailing does, only with fancier interfaces and graphics - is like saying that not paying as much for water purification to the State, and in turn paying that money to say - Coca Cola or Pepsi, to buy water at a supermarket, is "better" or "Worse". Really, it's all the same.
* - Note that the site's traffic volume is based on incredibly intense usage by a more limited number of visitors. At least five English language sites have a higher "reach" measurement; that is, they are visited by more unique people each day.
The correction of any errors, whether in citation, punctuation, spelling or otherwise - as well as the addition of and new information, provided ample source information, is both appreciated and encouraged.
Sensationalizing the insignificant - just like everyone else.