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Social networks

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Forget the plonk and canapes, make your new contacts via the ether, says Ben Hammersley

Thursday January 9, 2003
The Guardian

I blame Kevin Bacon. It's only fair: he probably doesn't know it, but the floppy fringed actor's influence on the internet has been long felt, if unusual - and this year it's everywhere.

What are we talking about? Social networks. Now, don't get all huffy. The influence of the one out of Footloose your sister fancied is not to be underestimated. Sure, it was the US sociologist Stanley Milgram who developed what he called the "Small World Hypothesis", which said, in effect, that everyone was connected to everyone else by six degrees or less - but it was the famous Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon online game site that firmly implanted the obscure scientific theory into the hive mind of the internet.

The game is easy. Take any actor, and you will be able to link him or her to Kevin Bacon by a chain of six or fewer actors who have appeared in films together. So, for example, take John Wayne. There's two degrees of Kevin there - John Wayne was in The Longest Day with Robert Wagner. He, in turn, was in Wild Things with Kevin Bacon.

So, technically, if Kevin wanted to have a beer with John, all he'd need to do is call up Robert, and get an introduction.

Though, obviously, it might be a bit tricky now. But to the point.

As it is with dodgy 80s movie stars, so it is with you and I. Given the right knowledge of the people between us, I could probably plot a chain of people between myself - here in the depths of the Swedish countryside - and you, wherever you are.

If such information was available, and it turned out it might be advantageous for us to chat, then we could ask each of the middlemen in turn for an introduction and get on with it. Or we could skip the middle guys altogether.

That's the idea of the growing number of social network sites on the net today. Take Friendster, for example. Still only in unannounced beta - the technical term for "not quite ready yet" - it has already gained thousands of members through word of mouth.

Its aim is to introduce all of your friends, for the purposes of "dating or making new friends" - on the logic that if I like you, and you say Bob is nice, and Bob says Bill is nice, then I'll probably find Bill nice, too. I might not know Bob or Bill now, but Friendster aims to rectify that. It shows their picture and their interests and gives a facility to get in touch with them.

Details of how to join should be up shortly on their site While Friendster launches, and tries to get into our pants, sites such as Ryze and The Ecademy have been hard at work since last year building business contacts for their members.

Just like Friendster, and the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, they, too, work on the idea that you probably know someone who knows someone who knows someone who might just be the someone for you - but this time they emphasise the more commercial sides of life. Ryzers, as they call themselves, are perhaps the most sophisticated of the bunch.

They get to list their interests, search other peoples', and leave messages for each other on their pages. Ryze also offers "tribes", sub-communi ties for everyone from expat Scandinavians in the US to webloggers. But do they work? Well, anecdotal evidence suggests they may well.

One reader, Bernie Goldbach, says: "At the end of the day, I use networks and connected technologies that work for me. Ryze has helped me get the attention of a venture capital analyst who is now trying to get an introduction to a major telco as a source of bootstrap revenue. Strictly speaking, networking events in the flesh can be a time drain. I believe networking in the ether gives more value for money. Ryze helps in that regard, but you have to be a paid-up member to avail of the power features that really win you information."

Indeed, the advantages over networking events are plain: people's interests and skills are laid open, they work internationally, and, perhaps the greatest advantage, they don't require you to spend an evening drinking cheap wine and talking to mad people. Nevertheless, says Gold bach, these social network sites are not the most productive of such tools.

"I get most of my client contacts from referrers coming from lurkers on mailing lists, weblogs or white paper readers," he says. Clay Shirky, a renowned internet thinker, agrees.

"Used right, mailing lists are still the best social network tools in existence," he says. And, of course, all these tools only work if you actively participate in them. No one will find you, if you keep your interests private and stay away from mailing lists and weblogs.

A new technology, however, is being developed that will allow you to stay away from such commercial operations as Friendster and Ryze. FOAF, or "friend of a friend", is a special computer language that can be used to describe ourselves, our work and our friends.

You can create your own FOAF file using one of many online tools and then register it with any of the many growing FOAF online applications. These are growing in number and popularity, and despite the technical aspects being, well, technical, FOAF is simple enough for the bold to join in with the developm

ent community at large. Further details and URLs can be found in the box below. So, there we have it. Our online cocktail parties will be instantly mapped by who knows who, and our business relationships might just get a little more transparent (imagine knowing who your colleagues all know - what an interesting change that might be). Not only are we all connected to Kevin Bacon, we've finally become him. Only without the silly hair.

How to set up a network
Joining a social network is easier online than in real life. However, Friendster is currently in beta (testing mode), so I am loathe to give out the password in a national newspaper. You will undoubtedly know someone who knows someone who is already on the system, though, and an invite will be easy to cadge.

After the beta is complete, will be well worth a look. It works very simply: you register some basic details (including whether or not you're looking for a relationship) and you are then invited to invite your friends to join.

Those already on the system get to confirm whether they are your friend or not, and the others are sent emails asking if they, too, would like to sign up.

Once each relationship is confirmed, every link is browsable, and so far I have more than 1,200 people linked to me in this way. Ryze is already up and running and gives a very cosy feeling to the newcomer. As I write this, I have been a member for just over a day, and already have had five messages left for me.

Signing up is simple. You answer a few questions - where you are, where you are from, what you like, and so on, and you can then optionally upload a photo. Because every keyword you enter (things like home town, or interests) is linked to others with the same thing in their profile, you'll immediately have people linked to you with connections.

FOAF files are more technical, but luckily one of the FOAF community, Leigh Dodds, has built a great little application for building them. The FOAF-o-Matic comes in two flavours. The older JavaScript version, at, is good, but simple.

The newer version, at, is more complex but not entirely polished yet.

Either version asks questions and produces a file you can then place online and register at other FOAF applications, such as Jim Ley's FOAFNaut at

One key feature of FOAF is that you can point to friends' FOAF files from within your own. Mine, therefore, is at Feel free to link to it.

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