Social Networking

Social Networking: Taking It to the Streets

When abstract artist Gina Raphaela wants to get the word out about shows featuring her paintings in her New York loft condo, she turns to her building’s social networking site, hosted by LifeAt.com. She sends messages to all of the members of her building’s online community, and she reports that plenty of friends and neighbors from the building have been coming to her events.

“I’ve met so many people through LifeAt,” Raphaela told TechNewsWorld. “The turnout at my shows has been great.”

Networking Evolved

Raphaela’s experiences with LifeAt.com, a company founded in 2006 that specializes in providing social networking services to more than 400 residential communities around the world, is part of the evolution of social networking: using online communities to foster activities and relationships in the “real world.”

“We give residents the ability to socialize with one another and the management,” said Matthew Goldstein, CEO of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based LifeAt.com. “People use our site to meet and communicate.”

Through communities created by LifeAt.com, residents post profiles, broadcast information about events in forums, find other residents with similar interests, and send messages to each other. Though these relationships begin electronically, they quickly and easily extend into the real world, where people arrange playdates for their kids, organize wine and cheese parties, and promote their businesses.

“We don’t view ourselves as just a social network,” Goldstein told TechNewsWorld. “We view ourselves as a community platform.”

Town and Gown

A similar service, which encompasses an entire town, is the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV) in Blacksburg, Va. One of the oldest virtual community networks in the country, BEV started in 1993 as a partnership between Virginia Tech and the community of Blacksburg. As a community with a large percentage of its residents online — 87 percent — Blacksburg is truly a wired place, and the BEV has helped to facilitate that access to and interest in the Internet from its beginnings.

BEV is not, however, just about the electronic realm. It’s about the world beyond the Web: the world where people shop, go to school, eat out, buy goods, and socialize with their neighbors. It’s an online community, in other words, that’s directly linked to the real-world community beyond the firewall.

Some of the services provide by BEV include Web site development and hosting for businesses, nonprofit groups, individuals and artists; e-mail accounts; a community directory; bulletin boards; calendars; and opportunities to network with people in and around Blacksburg.

Just as social networks seek to connect people in real life, they also want to connect advertising with potential customers. To that end, companies as varied as Google and Comcast are looking for ways to bring the social network outside the walled garden in which it lives.

Plaxo is one such company. Founded in 2002 and based in Mountain View, Calif., Plaxo offers both a networked address book service and a social networking service, which is called “Pulse.”

Out of the Garden

The company recently accepted a buyout offer from Comcast amid a flurry of activity in the social networking space that saw Google launch FriendConnect, a similar service that aggregates social content and ports it to other Web sites.

Pulse is a kind of dashboard for all the other social networking services that people belong to. It allows members to set up feeds so that their postings on other social networking sites flow into their Pulse profiles, letting friends and business associates access their information.

“We see ourselves as a next-generation social network,” John McCrea, vice president of marketing for Plaxo, told TechNewsWorld. “We’re about enriching connections with people you actually care about, and fostering real conversations between people who actually know each other.”

During this political season, one social networking service in particular is heating up as a way to transform electronic links into personal ones. Meetup.com is a site favored by political organizers to find like-minded people in their area, but it’s also used by crocheters, Chihuahua lovers and anyone else looking for people who share their interests or concerns.

Founded in 2002, Meetup.com has 3.9 million members in 4,000 cities and 100 countries. Members use the site to organize meetings for political, personal or other interests, searching by ZIP code or other variables to find people with similar interests. With meet-ups organized both by city and topic, people can tailor their search for what they’re looking for.

Call to Action

Supporters of Barack Obama, for instance, can register their interest in starting a local group of other Obama supporters, listing a time and a place for their meetings. People searching either for Obama supporters or for political groups in their particular area — or both — will be able to zero in on a meet-up that interests them.

Speaking of gatherings, there’s another way that social networking is evolving its offline offerings: party organizing. A Facebook app called “Party Buzz,” developed by the San Francisco startup Rondavu, for instance, aggregates users’ party plans, breaks down the demographics of parties, and allows people to see what everyone else has planned for the weekend.

“People want to know that they have a social connection at an event,” said Nisan Gabbay, Rondavu’s founder and CEO. “We can look at people in the guest book and aggregate the data to give people an idea of what that even will be like.”

Gabbay sees Party Buzz as part of a new wave in social networking. Now that everyone has gathered their acquaintances and friends on social networking sites, the goal is to do something with those connections and all of the data that comes along with them. For Party Buzz, that means both facilitating parties and offering people a kind of pre-party breakdown of the ages, genders, and interests of other possible attendees.

“The next stage of how social networking sites will provide value to users [is] by facilitating more offline activity,” Gabbay told TechNewsWorld. “You’ve added all your acquaintances as friends. How do you now gain real-world benefits from these connections?”

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