Image: Rachael and Laura Gillman
Kevork Djansezian  /  Kevork Djansezian
Rachael Gillman, right, who says she's addicted to the latest Web craze known as social networking, stands back-to-back with her sister Laura, who thinks the whole thing is "dorky."
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updated 3/22/2004 2:35:48 PM ET 2004-03-22T19:35:48

Rachel Gillman has always had a lot of friends. But thanks to the latest Web craze, known as social networking, she now has friends of friends — and friends of friends of friends.

It happened something like this: Last fall, the 22-year-old Chicagoan posted a profile and photos on the networking site Friendster. Then she sent an e-mail to people she knows, asking them to do the same — and that opened up the chance for her to meet their contacts and their contacts' contacts.

"I've become addicted," says Gillman, who has used the site to reconnect with old friends and meet new ones, including a couple of potential dates.

The concept of using the Internet to interlock circles of friends is intriguing to many Web surfers, evidenced by the proliferation of social and business networking sites in recent months. They include MySpace, Tribe Networks, Meetup, LinkedIn, Ryze and Google's new invitation-only site called Orkut.

One site, called Dogster, even allows enthusiastic pet owners to connect.

But not everyone gets the appeal, including Gillman's sister, Laura, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin. She opened a free account on Friendster, but only because her sister asked her to.

"This is so dorky," says the 19-year-old, who razzes her older sister about "testimonials" from friends, including one on the site that describes Rachel as "bubbly, enchanting, spunky, witty."

"It's like a high school popularity contest," says Laura, who prefers to meet her friends the old-fashioned way — without a computer.

A few "anti-socialites" have gone as far as installing e-mail filters to block the growing number of networking invitations their friends send from any number of sites.

Earlier this year, New York-based Web designer Jason Kottke posted a tongue-in-cheek Internet ad asking for someone to manage the growing number of networking accounts he'd created at friends' requests. He titled the piece, "Being your friend is hard work."

Kottke says he's "kicked the tires" on a few of the sites, but doesn't use them much. Between his own Web site, e-mail, and instant messaging, the 30-year-old says, "I have all the social networking capabilities I need."

Others just want to be left alone, or have qualms about sharing too much information with strangers through the networking sites.

Californian Greg Storey has taken aim at social networking by creating a spoof page called Introvertster, "an online community that prevents stupid people and friends from harassing you online."

"I'm not completely anti-social — but I'm close," quips Storey, who manages Internet services for a nonprofit in Orange County when he's not attending to his personal site, called Airbag.

Lisa Kopp, a spokeswoman for Friendster, says the company generally has a sense of humor about the sites that make fun of its concept. "All big, good brands get spoofed now and again, right?" she says.

It's true that Friendster is among the more common targets, partly because it's both popular and a relative veteran in its field. The California-based service had 1.4 million unique visitors in January, compared with about 110,000 last April, according to comScore Media Metrix, a company that tracks site traffic.

Benefits of a huge audience
Many who use the service and other sites rave about the benefits.

Alex Jorge and his Boston-based rock band THE:GASOLINES use Friendster and MySpace to connect with promoters, booking agents, journalists and other musicians. And they can get word about gigs to fans and their friends — better than the "old days of paper fliering and word-of-mouth buzz," the 25-year-old Jorge says.

Anna Bruce, a 28-year-old graphic designer in Oakland, Calif., met her boyfriend through Friendster last April. And now she uses LinkedIn to find reliable freelance work and business contacts without having to spend hours surfing job sites on the Web.

"It is still amazing to me to see how I'm linked to other people," Bruce says. "I've found that some of my friends who I thought were completely disconnected from each other actually know each other."

Even a few political candidates, including Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, are getting in on the act, as a way to connect with younger voters.

Kerry on Friendster
Kerry has a Friendster profile that features a photo of him sailboarding and lists the movie "Animal House" and the Beatles' "Abbey Road" album among his favorites. He also reveals his weakness for Hostess chocolate cupcakes.

Friendster's Kopp says hundreds of people outside his circles of friends are making requests to become Kerry's online "friends," and dozens more have written testimonials for him. (She says the company has extended an invitation to President Bush to create a profile but, so far, his staff hasn't responded.)

Many business people and educators also are starting to see the benefits of networking on sites that are more corporate in nature — from ZeroDegrees to Visible Path, which scans address books, e-mail stores and other data within an organization's computer network to glean and share employee contacts

Wayne Baker, a sociologist and business professor at the University of Michigan who wrote the book "Achieving Success Through Social Capital," says he now recommends the concept to his students.

And next month, the business school at Carnegie Mellon University will begin using networker Spoke Software to allow alumni to share their contacts and information about themselves, well beyond the usual electronic mailing lists.

It makes sense to Rachel Gillman, the Chicagoan who's fallen for social networking.

"All of it is simply formalizing something that happens anyway," she says, recalling how face-to-face networking with fellow classmates at her university helped her land a public relations job. "It was all about somebody who knew somebody."

"Now," she says thanks to online networking, "they're just more accessible."

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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