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With more than 70 million users, MySpace has proven that Internet users are hungry for Internet tools that let them network with friends, share photos and blogs, and advertise their activities. But MySpace is social networking for the masses. A growing number of Web companies are betting that Internet users want more sophisticated social-networking and media-sharing tools.

Last week we profiled one such outfit, Wallop, a Microsoft spinout that’s building an immersive new social-networking environment scheduled to debut this summer (see “New Social Networking Technology Packs a Wallop”). But Palo Alto, CA-based startup imeem is going in a different direction. It’s reconceiving social networking around a familiar platform: instant messaging.

The 21-employee company, backed by venture capital firm Morgenthaler Ventures, makes a downloadable application that complements existing IM systems, letting users build buddy lists, see rich profiles of each buddy, track who’s online, and share photos, video files, and streaming audio instantly.

On April 8, Technology Review inquired about imeem’s approach with CEO Dalton Caldwell, 26, who has dual Bachelor’s degrees in psychology and symbolic systems from Stanford and is a former programmer for the open-source Jabber instant-messaging project.

Technology Review: What’s the basic philosophy behind imeem, and what makes it different from other social networking services?

Dalton Caldwell: The focal point of imeem is instant messaging. We think the buddy list should be the focus of your social universe online, and for social media – blogging, photo sharing, video sharing, audio sharing. You can tag things and see how the community is tagging things, you can rate things. In other words, the center of the imeem universe is you and your friends, and all the “stuff” around them. The stuff is what makes it interesting.

TR: What made the instant-messaging model attractive to you?

DC: I’m definitely a member of the IM generation. I’m 26. It was such an important part of my life when I was in high school. And it’s continued to be this powerful social phenomenon. There’s a similar phenomenon happening now with social networking. But if you think about the usage model of instant messaging – always on, seeing who’s present, dynamic interaction – it’s a much more social operation than just clicking on some social networking website. You could tell that the people who worked on the first generation of social networking services were not members of the IM generation.

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