Back when your parents were in school, they actually had to initiate in-person conversations if they wanted a social life. Of course, that was when they weren't walking two miles to school, in the snow, uphill -- both ways.
You pesky kids have it so easy these days with your darn social networks!
Online social networks have certainly made it easier to make -- and stay in touch with -- school friends. Whether you're trying to get back in touch with an old school posse, or looking for a new one, the process is less risky and can often be more fruitful when it happens online. And it can help you find the right group, too. Why be alone this fall when you could be getting together with fellow members of the "Emo Is The New Rad" group on Bebo?
But no matter how big of a slacker you are, you surely won't have time for all the social networks out there. No worries. There is no need to pledge allegiance to just one. At last year's Web 2.0 Summit, Marc Canter, chief executive officer for Broadband Mechanics, estimated that the average user is an active member of five social networks.
So if you're going to choose five, you might as well be judicious in your selection. Here are Wired News' top picks.
Despite a reputation for being trashy, ugly and over-hyped, MySpace is still the largest social network out there. In June, the site claimed 70 million active users, with one in four Americans having logged in at some point. Teenage members dominate the site, which is why MySpace has the unfortunate reputation of being a breeding ground for pedophiles. Forrester Research reports that 80 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds use MySpace weekly.
WIRED This year MySpace added a page for the 2008 presidential candidates, as well as a MySpace News page, which could be helpful for your history courses.
TIRED It's doubtful that its users will ever take MySpace that seriously. A quick browse through the site will leave you with more hoochie mamas than you'll ever have time for.
Even though Facebook started out for students only, more than half of the site's users are out of college, meaning your membership should still be useful after graduation. Currently, the site has 47,000 regional, collegiate and high school groups populated by 31 million active users. In preparation for the inevitable roommate clash, don't forget to join CouchSwap, a new travel application made specifically for Facebook. It lets you offer, find and rate couches to crash on. Perfect for the urban nomads of the world!
WIRED Within university groups, there are subgroups organized by dorms, colleges, hobbies, food affiliations, political opinion, you name it. If you can't find friends within your groups of interest, your keyboard may not be plugged in.
TIRED As Facebook grows, so does the number of random groups that seem to have no application for your real social life. Unless you really do want to meet other Rubik's cube enthusiasts.
There is nothing cute or sexy about LinkedIn, but when it comes time to wean yourself from the parentals, you'll be thankful for this more business-oriented network. LinkedIn has over 12.5 million users and is growing at a rate of approximately 200,000 per week. Think LinkedIn is too uncool if you're still in school? Guess again: "Students can use LinkedIn to find mentors and to perform research," said Kay Luo, a spokesperson for LinkedIn. "It's a great place to find industry contacts for research papers and case studies. It's wise to establish relationships and maintain your network before you need it."
WIRED Nearly half of LinkedIn's users are over 34, meaning they have the money and power to get you a job.
TIRED Once you make useful contacts, what do you do with them? You can't share much content on LinkedIn beyond a souped-up resume, so be sure you get real contact information along with your introductions. Then invite your new contacts to Facebook -- it'll make them feel young and hip.
When you're ready to network outside of the United States, Bebo is a good place to start. It is the third-largest social network in the space, with the majority of its users in the U.K.
WIRED Bebo is great for music lovers: The site links directly to iTunes music. Bebo Bands, which launched in July 2006, is the home of over 20,000 group and artist profiles.
TIRED It isn't that easy to find friends. Bebo will search through your address book for people you already know, but finding new friends by location or interest is not that easy if you don't join groups.
Another way to make friends beyond the 50 states is hi5, a social network with over 60 million registered members. "Since members post photos and content about themselves, new students can get to know each other better using hi5," said Ramu Yalamanchi, chief executive officer for hi5. "They can also stay in touch and see how summer break was spent." The site is the number one social-networking location in Mexico, South America and Central America. Yalamanchi said 30 percent of hi5 members are from Europe, 25 percent from hispanohablantes, or Spanish speaking markets, and 23 percent from North America.
WIRED Most hi5ers are between 15 to 25 years old, making it useful for back-to-school time.
TIRED If you don't habla Español, hi5 may not be for you.
Poor Friendster has a bit of a social-network-that-was reputation, but it still has over 47 million users in 75 countries. It may not dominate the American social-networking market but it has a strong international presence. The site had 9.5 billion page views in June, with the average user staying online for 208 minutes.
"In the back-to-school period, it kicks into overdrive," said Jeff Roberto, a spokesperson for Friendster. "On the homepage, you can add up to three schools and three colleges to your profile. Every time you add a school, we go and find the same people that went to that school during the same years and pull all those profiles to you so that you can discover new people and new content relevant to your school."
Since Friendster requires users be at least 16 to sign up, it is less useful for high school students than for college and post-college students.
WIRED School-centric profile searches makes it easy to find new friends at your new school -- or old friends at your old school.
TIRED Users in the United States tend to use Friendster less for communication, and more for simply posting updates about themselves and their friends. Comments are more of an ode to your friends than an actual timely message.
If all else fails, there's always craigslist. Lonely? You can post a personal this morning and get a couple dozen come-ons from strangers by this afternoon. Plus, you can also use the site to find activist groups, arts events, theater companies desperate for your juggling skills or that single-speed Bianchi you've been craving.
WIRED No photos, songs, blogs, friends, recommendations, pokes, walls, groups, videos, widgets or background graphics to distract you.
TIRED No photos, songs, blogs, friends, recommendations, pokes, walls, groups, videos, widgets or background graphics to entertain you.