MySpace is a high school cafeteria, a massive shoulder-to-shoulder throng of people gathering in one place just so they can meet up with other people. It's noisy, confusing, unabashedly social and always busy.
But the cafeteria isn't the only one-stop link-up centre. Away from the constant chatter are splinter groups like book clubs, activist cliques and geekified communities. So MySpace is facing stiff competition from other social networking sites catering to hobbies, lifestyles and even consumer choices.
What started as a trend to find anyone and everyone online has now shifted into more concerted efforts to keep those online searches tightened to a specialized crew. Sure, the cafeteria's okay once in a while, but you don't want to eat there every day.
Leading the pack in personalized social networking is New York-based Passions Network, boasting 106 sites catering to various hobbies or lifestyle choices. The ecology-minded can join Green-Passions.com, while the D&D crowd can opt for NerdPassions.com. Other offshoots include GothPassions.com, DisabledPassions.com, BabyBoomerPassions.com and even AtheistPassions.com.
These free sites function as hybrids, providing both social networking and online dating features, says Michael Carter, president of Passions Network. Members create profiles and join blogs or forums to meet guys and gals who share their interests.
"The main appeal would be that you can join one time and then have access to the entire network of over 100 individual and highly focused sites," says Carter. He says online wanderers are flocking to his sites.
"They want to join a networked society where they share something in common with someone, as opposed to being just a friend of a friend."
He's referring here to the MySpace practice of allowing any member to join another member's Friends list, thus creating a mountainous extended network of people who've never met, even virtually (as if Mos Def in person really sorted through 138,529 friend requests).
Since members of the Passions sites can jump to groups that intrigue them, the social networking experience isn't static. Rather, it adapts to the individual's mood. If you're jonesing for sci-fi talk, you can turn to TrekPassions.com, or if you're looking for a couscous recipe you can hit the forum at VeganPassions.com.
Social networking sites are also targeting the generation that's often skeptical of interactive technology. Eons.com launched last July and has already pulled in 150,000 members in the 50-plus demographic. You know a site is catering to white-haired Web surfers when it links to a page for the National Obituary Center.
If this sounds a bit much, be prepared for showbiz and corporate America to somersault onto the bandwagon. OurChart.com is an online brand extension of The L Word, Showtime's lesbian drama. Already launched as a site featuring content about the show's stars, OurChart will soon feature a social networking component allowing queer women to virtually connect (about more than The L Word's plot lines, let's hope).
Hilary Rosen, president of OurChart, sums up the site's raison d'être by saying, "Lesbians definitely like to have their own space but with good free access to a broader world."
Averaging 250,000 visitors in two weeks, this sexuality-specific community has the potential to pull lesbians away from Craigslist's women-seeking-women section - but also from real-life hookups at Slack's on a Saturday night.
Toyota, the number-three car seller in the U.S., encourages its hybrid owners to enjoy careening through city streets, but when at home they can visit www.hybridsynergydrive.com, a social networking baby that's already attracted 10,000 members. It lets environmentally conscious (but snobby) auto aficionados e-mail each other about hydraulics, gas mileage and whatever else people who drive talk about.
Toyota won't be the only company looking to profit from the social networking snowball. And contrary to its competitors' pipe dreams, MySpace is not going to disappear any time soon either - at last count, it had 145 million members. What we'll continue to see are technophiles tired of the six-degrees-of-separation links seeking instead a more useful session of online interaction.
After all, where would you rather meet new friends - the cafeteria or a club where people actually listen to what you say?