Plenty of people make friends online, but will their Internet hangouts make money?
That's the question lurking behind the "social networking" Web sites that have popped up this year with names like Friendster, Tribe.net, LinkedIn and Meetup. They help people find pals online and form intricate personal networks of "friends of friends," presenting them as vast electronic flow charts that folks can mine for jobs, dates and business deals.
Their creators confess they haven't figured out how to make money off the free-form communities they are building faster than you can say "Pets.com." Yet they contend their tools to help people share information represent the next wave of community on the Internet.
Venture capitalists seem to agree. They are throwing money at the start-ups as if one was destined to become the next eBay, even though it's far from clear that any will be more profitable than e-mail, instant messaging or previous Internet communication tools.
But at least for now, you can sign up free at LinkedIn.com and try to wrangle an online introduction to Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, one of LinkedIn's more than 40,000 members. Over at Tribe.net, you can create your own free "tribe" centered on any topic, or list for sale that laptop or December time share you don't use.
It also costs nothing to hang out at Friendster, a virtual pickup joint where people try to make themselves look popular by amassing networks of pals and pals of pals they've never actually met. Friendster has signed up more than 3 million members, and it raked in $13 million in venture capital last month.
The young crowd, though, may prefer Friendzy, a smaller virtual party started last month by two brothers in Dallas, or MySpace.com, a friend-finder created by eUniverse Inc.
To find events in the real world and hobnob with people who share your interests, stop by www.meetup.com or www.upcoming.org.
There are at least two dozen other personal networking start-ups, including Spoke, Ryze and MixerMixer. Established Web sites are jumping in, too. Evite, the electronic invitation service owned by Barry Diller's InterActiveCorp is releasing tools this week to let people create personal profiles and publicly list events to be held offline. Monster.com, the job recruiting site, recently announced that it will launch a social networking service early next year.
Most of the start-ups are trying to integrate electronic commerce more cleverly into the Internet communities of the future than it has been, say, at Match.com, Monster and other early classified listing sites.
"We are in the process of inventing Internet 2.0," declared Mark Kvamme, a partner at California-based Sequoia Capital, which announced yesterday that it is leading a $4.7 million investment round for LinkedIn.
LinkedIn focuses on career development, offering an online version of the introductions that often lead to jobs and business deals offline.
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