Social-networking sites: the complete guide

Facebook, MySpace et al, find the right site for you

Whether you're looking for a job, a party or long-lost friends, your ideal online meeting place is out there. We uncover 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 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.

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.

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