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“The uptake we’ve seen has been incredible,” Friendster CEO Taek Kwon said in October, about a month after the new features were introduced. “We’ve seen substantial increases in media being uploaded, profiles being customized, and people posting classifieds.”

Friendster’s current membership: 21 million, with 9 million of those users returning to the site every month.

Friends or Buddies?

The newest players in social networking, such as Palo Alto, CA-based iMeem, may have a long way to go to catch up with the likes of Friendster – but their technology is already leapfrogging that of their older competitors.

iMeem hopes to attract members by building all their activities not around a virtual representation of their social network, but around instant messaging technology. Indeed, the company’s name is a combination of IM, for instant messaging, and “meme,” meaning an idea spreading through a network.

As an undergraduate in psychology at Stanford University, iMeem co-founder and CEO Dalton Caldwell wrote a thesis about instant messaging’s role in workplace collaboration. The wave of social networking applications that emerged around 2001 intrigued him, he says, but “from the first time I saw this stuff, I didn’t think it was interactive enough. It was too much just lurking and watching people from afar, but not in real time. It seemed to me the center of the universe [in a social network] should be a buddy list rather than a friends list.”

That’s exactly how iMeem works. A downloadable application similar to Yahoo Instant Messenger or MSN Messenger, iMeem is built around a buddy-list window that shows a user which of her friends are online. From that window, she can send and receive instant messages, join group chats, keep a blog, and share photos, videos, podcasts, playlists, and the like with other users using a peer-to-peer system related to the technology behind the original Napster.

Aggregating all of these functions into one program sounds like a recipe for information overload. But Caldwell believes that iMeem users will act as each others’ media critics, perhaps bringing real effectiveness to the much-heralded idea of “collaborative filtering.” “There’s too much stuff out there,” Caldwell says. “Too much data, too much content, too many blogs. Collaborative filtering is one of the most important things that’s happened on the Web over the past couple of years. It’s holding back the tide of overstimulation.”

It could be argued, of course, that supplementing one’s everyday, real-life interactions with virtual ones through social-networking sites simply adds to the overstimulation. But if users weren’t gaining some benefit from their online networks, they wouldn’t be signing up by the millions. In the future, membership in an online social network may seem as commonplace as belonging to a more traditional organization like the Boy Scouts, the PTA, or the local Neighborhood Watch. The only difference? By ponying up a subscription fee or enduring online ads, you’ll be paying for the pleasure.

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