Whether you're looking for a job, a party or long-lost friends, your ideal online meeting place is out there. PC Advisor uncovers the best social-networking sites on the web.

With hundreds of millions of user accounts, MySpace is the internet's most recognisable (and reviled) social network. From teenagers to grandmas, seemingly everybody has a page. But Rupert Murdoch's online leviathan may not be the best option for satisfying your web-communication needs.

Nimble new startup companies are offering both general-purpose and specialised services, all for free. They could get you a job, find you a date, connect you with friends new and old and fill your life with beautiful music.

With so many social networks dotting the web, it's hard to know which ones are worth your time and bandwidth. To clarify things, we've examined more than a dozen alternatives to MySpace in five broad categories: general purpose; special interest; sites based around your taste in music or books; mobile networking; and media-sharing social networks. As we discuss our findings, we'll offer a few tips for maintaining your safety and privacy, finding friends online and getting the most out of each service.

General-purpose social-networking sites > >

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  1. Social-networking sites: the complete guide
  2. General-purpose social-networking sites
  3. Special-interest social-networking sites
  4. Taste-based social networks
  5. Mobile social-networking
  6. Media-sharing social-networking sites
  7. Facebook's mass appeal
  8. How safe is social networking?
  9. Social-networking glossary

Whether you're looking for a job, a party or long-lost friends, your ideal online meeting place is out there. PC Advisor uncovers the best social-networking sites on the web.

General-purpose sites

Facebook

Although it began in 2004 as an online yearbook for Harvard students,
Facebook.com soon opened its membership to everyone else. You can search for friends according to their school, city or work affiliations, and you can join more than one of these networks, allowing you to maintain connections with ex-classmates, neighbours and colleagues.

Using this approach, the site has grown to a staggering 60 million members. Its main features – photo and video sharing, messaging and public message boards – are similar to those on MySpace, but it eschews the crazy skins and music players that render many MySpace profiles illegible.

Unfortunately, beneath Facebook's clean, blue-and-white facade lies potential risk. Last year, Facebook's controversial Beacon advertising scheme, which made members' online purchases viewable by other members, caused an uproar as users objected to being transformed into unwitting (and uncompensated) product endorsers.

If you worry that such a privacy gaffe could recur, you can use Facebook's fine-grained security settings to establish an appropriate level of privacy protection. Click here for our tips on security settings and customisations for Facebook.

LinkedIn

Unlike Facebook and MySpace, which are in essence about fun and friends, LinkedIn promotes your career or your business. It's become one of the most talked-about social networks and has quickly grown to nearly 20 million members.

Like other networks, LinkedIn revolves around your personal profile and showcases your employment history, professional skills and education. It also explains how and why you want to be contacted.

To get the most out of your membership, make these entries brief, complete and sparkling. The most important items in your profile, however, are the recommendations you receive from current and former colleagues and employers regarding the positions you've held.

It goes without saying that the more positive recommendations you have, the better you'll look to potential employers in LinkedIn's Jobs & Hiring area, and to prospective clients in the Services area.

Twitter

Is Twitter really a social network? Yes, but not in the same way as Facebook and MySpace. The content that drives Twitter is a relentless stream of real-time personal status postings called tweets, each limited to 140 characters. “Going out for more batteries” or “Feeling snacky, I think I'll have a salad” are the stuff of Twitter greatness – so long as tracking your friends' ephemeral actions and mutterings is your cup of tea.

After you've signed up, it's worth perusing the ever-changing public updates page to see the variety of ways people use Twitter and to find interesting Twitterers to follow. You can also allow Twitter to search through your email address book to see whether any of your contacts are already Twitter users.

If you'd rather not broadcast your posts to the universe, select the ‘Protect my Updates' option in Twitter's settings to keep your posts out of the public timeline and approve any followers before they can see your tweets.

When you're away from your PC, Twitter lets you send and receive tweets on your mobile phone via SMS or Twitter's mobile site.

NEXT PAGE: Special-interest social-networking sites > >

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  1. Social-networking sites: the complete guide
  2. General-purpose social-networking sites
  3. Special-interest social-networking sites
  4. Taste-based social networks
  5. Mobile social-networking
  6. Media-sharing social-networking sites
  7. Facebook's mass appeal
  8. How safe is social networking?
  9. Social-networking glossary

Whether you're looking for a job, a party or long-lost friends, your ideal online meeting place is out there. PC Advisor uncovers the best social-networking sites on the web.

Special-interest sites

The problem with the big mass-market social networks is that they're too crowded. How will anyone find your profile among the 400 million MySpace pages? Now, however, thousands of social-networking sites have emerged that are built around specific activities, ideas or interests, or that target particular groups of people.

For example, at BlackPlanet.com, African-Americans can form networks based on topics or geographical locations. MiGente.com is a sibling site with similar features intended for the Latino community, while AsianAve.com serves Asian communities.

People who are experiencing their golden years can make virtual connections at SagaZone.co.uk or TeeBeeDee.com, sites dedicated to more mature social networkers. And if you really hanker after your lost youth, it's time to revisit FriendsReunited.com.

Ning

If you can't find an online community that matches your needs, you can build your own. At Ning, you create a customised social network with its own domain name and banner art, individual member profile pages, photo and video sharing, multiple subtopic groups and discussion forums.

Once your custom network is complete, anyone – not just Ning members – can find it in Ning's directory or through the site's keyword tag cluster. Creating a Ning network takes only a couple of minutes.

To increase the safety of your network's users, you can make it visible only to members, approve each would-be member
or allow membership by invitation only.

NEXT PAGE: Taste-based social networks > >

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.

  1. Social-networking sites: the complete guide
  2. General-purpose social-networking sites
  3. Special-interest social-networking sites
  4. Taste-based social networks
  5. Mobile social-networking
  6. Media-sharing social-networking sites
  7. Facebook's mass appeal
  8. How safe is social networking?
  9. Social-networking glossary

Whether you're looking for a job, a party or long-lost friends, your ideal online meeting place is out there. PC Advisor uncovers the best social-networking sites on the web.

Taste-based networks

LibraryThing

Steve Jobs recently claimed that nobody reads any more, but a growing number of sites focus on something almost everyone can relate to: what's on your bedside table.

LibraryThing lets you catalogue the contents of your library, share your reading preferences with other users, and discover books and authors you might otherwise have ignored. Are you a fan of the Spanish writer Ramón del Valle-Inclán? A surprising number of LibraryThing subscribers share your eclectic taste and are ready for a discussion. At the moment, LibraryThing has about 330,000 subscribers.

You start by adding books to your online catalogue one at a time, either by typing in the book's ISBN (its identifying number) or by copying its information from another member's catalogue. Alternatively, you can import multiple books into your catalogue by searching for ISBNs on publisher, bookseller or book-review web pages.
Once you've established your library, LibraryThing can suggest other books for you to read, based on the catalogues of members who have similar tastes. Members with free accounts can catalogue up to 200 of their favourite books; unlimited accounts require a $10 (£5) annual donation, while a lifetime membership costs $25 (£12).

Last.fm

Tired of hearing the same old music? Wish you could find more songs in the same vein and enjoy those tunes for free? Last.fm's downloadable media player plug-in listens to what you play in your PC's audio player or on your iPod, compares that with the listening habits of Last.fm users with similar tastes, then suggests music it thinks you'll like.

As you click the 'Love' and 'Ban' buttons in response to Last.fm's suggestions, the site learns even more and provides new and different tracks in the same style.

As in the real world, friends on Last.fm are the people who turn you on to great music selections that you'd not have known about otherwise; but if you don't end up making many friends at the site, that's okay. You can still browse through the profiles of users who have similar tastes to yours for music that might be to your liking.

iMeem

Facebook's photo-sharing feature is great, and you can list your favourite TV shows, films and musicians on your profile page there, but that's it. iMeem takes the sharing of movie and music preferences a step further, combining Facebook-style socialising with MySpace-style embedded players, playlists and profile themes.

When you join, you enter as little or as much information about yourself as you like into your iMeem profile, including your location, your schools and employers, your music, movie and TV favourites and other interests. Then you can assemble a list of friends, either by adding specific users or by having iMeem search your webmail accounts for existing iMeemers. You can search for songs and videos that you like and add them to your playlist, enjoy others' playlists and join or create groups dedicated to particular interests, artists or genres.

Most of the audio and video available on iMeem consists of short clips (with links to iTunes or Amazon pages where you can purchase a downloadable version), but you can also upload entire songs for your own playback. Musicians and directors can upgrade their accounts to free professional versions, which showcase their work and include an iMeem subdomain (such as lilyallen.imeem.com).

NEXT PAGE: Mobile social-networking > >

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.

  1. Social-networking sites: the complete guide
  2. General-purpose social-networking sites
  3. Special-interest social-networking sites
  4. Taste-based social networks
  5. Mobile social-networking
  6. Media-sharing social-networking sites
  7. Facebook's mass appeal
  8. How safe is social networking?
  9. Social-networking glossary

Whether you're looking for a job, a party or long-lost friends, your ideal online meeting place is out there. PC Advisor uncovers the best social-networking sites on the web.

Mobile social-networking

Dada.net

A kind of mobile MySpace, Dada.net lets you create and customise a personalised home page to which you can upload photos, videos, music and blog posts. You can do all of this from your PC's or your phone's web browser.

The service makes some of its income from the Google Ads its members view.

You can share in the revenue if you've got a Google AdSense account: the greater the number of people who see your profile and its ads, the more money you and Dada.net make. For that reason, you'll start receiving friend requests straight away from people you don't know; however, the site's privacy settings let you screen out most unwanted enquiries.

Dada.net also specialises in hooking you up and provides a ‘Love' profile separate from your ‘Friendship' profile. Many of Dada.net's mobile services are available for free. Others, including Love chats and mobile-phone ringtone and wallpaper downloads require a monthly subscription that can run as high as $10 (£5), so be sure to click cautiously.

NEXT PAGE: Media-sharing social-networking sites > >

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  1. Social-networking sites: the complete guide
  2. General-purpose social-networking sites
  3. Special-interest social-networking sites
  4. Taste-based social networks
  5. Mobile social-networking
  6. Media-sharing social-networking sites
  7. Facebook's mass appeal
  8. How safe is social networking?
  9. Social-networking glossary

Whether you're looking for a job, a party or long-lost friends, your ideal online meeting place is out there. PC Advisor uncovers the best social-networking sites on the web.

Media-sharing social-networking sites

eSnips

Some people like to attach Microsoft Word files containing poems, reports and other kinds of text to their mass emails, hoping that someone on the list will read them. Undoubtedly, most recipients simply delete those messages, because email is not the most convenient way to share files.

Online file storage has boomed in recent years, but eSnips goes beyond simple storage, combining it with networking and creating online communities centered on content categories such as musical styles, painting, poetry, photography, animation and humour. After you've uploaded your text, audio, image, video or other type of file to eSnips (using a handy browser toolbar, if you wish), you can opt to share it with the world or with a more select group by email invitation. You can even sell your work through the eSnips Marketplace.

eSnips helps you find like-minded people among its reported four million users by creating a statistical analysis of your uploaded content, called your ‘SocialDNA', and matching it with that of other users. Each account receives 5GB of storage for free, currently with no additional storage options.

Scribd

This media-sharing service differs from its competitor eSnips in one important way: it has no storage limits. You don't even need to sign up for an account to upload files. Just browse over and click the big green Upload arrow. You need to sign in with a user account if you want to maintain ownership of the files you upload, however, and you must designate who can see them or delete them later on.

Logging in lets you specify whether your files are kept private on Scribd, either making them invisible to everyone else until you send out email invitations or marking them as publicly viewable.

Used in combination with Scribd's bulk file uploader, the service can act as a handy limitless online backup tool, or as an alternative to Flickr's limited accounts.

Scribd arranges your uploaded content into topical groups, as eSnips does, but Scribd doesn't suggest files it thinks you'll like– a feature you may be willing to give up in exchange for unlimited storage.

NEXT PAGE: Facebook's mass appeal > >

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.

  1. Social-networking sites: the complete guide
  2. General-purpose social-networking sites
  3. Special-interest social-networking sites
  4. Taste-based social networks
  5. Mobile social-networking
  6. Media-sharing social-networking sites
  7. Facebook's mass appeal
  8. How safe is social networking?
  9. Social-networking glossary

Whether you're looking for a job, a party or long-lost friends, your ideal online meeting place is out there. PC Advisor uncovers the best social-networking sites on the web.

Facebook's mass appeal

Despite mutterings of a slowdown, Facebook continues to account for a significant amount of a significant number of perfectly intelligent people's time. Only the US has more Facebook users than Britain.

A big reason for Facebook's allure is not just the number of people who use it, but the thousands of applications on the site. These mini applets use the power of social networking for everything imaginable, acting as extensions to the basic Facebook post-a-profile/read-a-profile functionality. Some are serious, some are frivolous, while others are downright annoying and can lead to you accidentally spamming everyone in your friends list.

Third-party developers are queuing up to write free applications for the site – a development platform in its own right. With more than 7,000 Facebook applications to choose from, we've chosen a few of our favourites to share with you.

Scrabulous

Scrabble owner Hasbro is miffed that it didn't come up with the idea for Scrabulous: a virtual Scrabble game that you challenge friends to play. Unlike the real game, you don't have to sit around for 15 minutes while your opponent comes up with a word worth 12 points. Simply make your move when you log in.

Lil Green Patch

This site purports to save the rainforest acre by acre – and you get to nurture your own little green patch along the way.

By maintaining your garden and lending a hand with your friends' gardens, you earn virtual money to spend and plants
to send to others. The nurturing process increases your acreage, little by little.

Photos

Why post to Flickr or a site that's more interested in getting you to print your digital snaps than to share them, when you can show them to everyone you know (or limit access) at Facebook's own Photo gallery? Beware others tagging you in dodgy snaps, though: check in regularly for pictures you'd rather weren't associated with your good name. Detagging is where it's at.

iRead

As well as being a good way of getting into lit crit, iRead lets you find out what friends and other users of this application think of books you had half a mind to read. There's the option of being more proactive and ‘chucking' a book you recommend at friends, but the site's own recommendation engine is less successful.

LinkedIn Contacts

LinkedIn is gaining currency at long last, so this crossover tool to co-ordinate your business and social networks is a boon. It makes you a bit more efficient and fools you into thinking time spent on Facebook isn't necessarily time wasted. Well, we all need a bit of downtime, after all.

Zoho Online Office Suite

Zoho is one of the better online productivity suites, complete with word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software and database. This Facebook application taps into your existing Zoho account, or you can set up a new account from inside the app.

It links to all your Zoho documents and also lets you co-operatively work on the documents with other Facebook users. As with your normal Zoho account, you can choose which documents to keep private.

Spamless Applications Directory

Designed as an easy way to choose which Facebook apps to install, based on the fact that they don't require you to spam your friends (quickly turning them from mates to anything but). Friendships could be saved.

NEXT PAGE: How safe is social networking? > >

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.

  1. Social-networking sites: the complete guide
  2. General-purpose social-networking sites
  3. Special-interest social-networking sites
  4. Taste-based social networks
  5. Mobile social-networking
  6. Media-sharing social-networking sites
  7. Facebook's mass appeal
  8. How safe is social networking?
  9. Social-networking glossary

Whether you're looking for a job, a party or long-lost friends, your ideal online meeting place is out there. PC Advisor uncovers the best social-networking sites on the web.

How safe is social networking?

In light of a handful of high-profile cyberbullying, stalking and suicide cases that the media partially blamed on social networks, many of us have begun to give serious thought to the wisdom of spending life online. The parents of teenage MySpacers and Bebo-ers, in particular, have expressed grave concerns.

Mary (name changed) has a deal with her secondary-school-age daughter that her MySpace profile must be private, shielding her from all but her real-world friends. But when the 15-year-old created a fictional female MySpace character with a friend, they made the account public and soon began chatting with an older boy. When the younger girl agreed to meet the boy, it triggered a crisis in both girls' families.

“When you make somebody up, they're exciting, they're more adventurous than you really are,” says Mary, who was unhappy with the fake account but even more shocked that it progressed to a face-to-face meeting.

Magazine publisher Waylon Lewis says his company used a MySpace page to promote parties and other events for its yoga-culture magazine, Elephant, until the page began attracting so much porn spam that he had to abandon the effort. But Lewis's story has a happy ending: his company fled from MySpace to Facebook, and he finds it a great place to publicise events and build community around the magazine. Lewis says his Facebook inbox is completely spam-free, but he wonders whether that will last if Facebook's ownership or policies change.

“I didn't used to get triple-X spam on MySpace,” Waylon says.

NEXT PAGE: Social-networking glossary > >

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.

  1. Social-networking sites: the complete guide
  2. General-purpose social-networking sites
  3. Special-interest social-networking sites
  4. Taste-based social networks
  5. Mobile social-networking
  6. Media-sharing social-networking sites
  7. Facebook's mass appeal
  8. How safe is social networking?
  9. Social-networking glossary

Whether you're looking for a job, a party or long-lost friends, your ideal online meeting place is out there. PC Advisor uncovers the best social-networking sites on the web.

Social-networking glossary

Add: The act of gaining a new friend, and social networking's common currency. “Dude, thanks for the add,” may be added to your profile

Block: To configure your social-networking service to prevent a particular user from contacting you
or viewing your profile

Check-in: In mobile social networking, an electronic message that alerts your group of friends that you've arrived at the local pub and are ready to party

Cyberbully: To attack, harass or ridicule a fellow community member via posted text, video or other electronic means

Defriend: The opposite of adding a friend, and the very epitome of coldness. Same as unfriend

Faceslam: To ignore a Facebook friend request from someone you don't know and/or wish would just go away

Facestalk: To scan, jealously, the Facebook profiles and photos of people you know, are going out with or are going out with in your dreams

Friend: To request that another user add you as a friend – sometimes an awkward moment for the networker

MySpace suicide: The act of deleting one's MySpace account forever

Nudge: On Twitter, to send a message notifying someone you follow that they're not posting frequently enough

Poke: On Facebook, a feature that lets users know that you're looking at their profile (and possibly stalking them)

RL: Real life. The world of flesh, bone and face-to-face meetings that existed before the web browser

Slurping: The ability of most social networks to import your web-based mail contacts to see if any are already on the service. Watch out for slurpers that spam contacts with invites

Twitterrhea: A condition resulting in an excess of Twitter posts. For more jargon, see the Twitter Fan Wiki's glossary

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest news and reviews about the internet and internet tools.

  1. Social-networking sites: the complete guide
  2. General-purpose social-networking sites
  3. Special-interest social-networking sites
  4. Taste-based social networks
  5. Mobile social-networking
  6. Media-sharing social-networking sites
  7. Facebook's mass appeal
  8. How safe is social networking?
  9. Social-networking glossary