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August 26, 2005

Online Social Networking Goes Mobile



Courtesy of InternetWeek

As Web sites created for social networking have gained popularity, they've grown from intersecting circles of friends of friends to groups of strangers linked by a common interest. The latest trick is to go mobile -- not just to access personal profiles, but to use a phone to publish media content.

First there was Friendster, which introduced the concept of six degrees of separation to the Internet. Then came MySpace.com, which more than 26 million people now use to make friends, date, or post their blog or music recordings. It has more monthly page views than any site on the Web other than Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft MSN or eBay. And now there's Rabble, which creator Intercasting Corp. says is the first piece of software designed to allow people to create and publish their own content -- whether photos, video clips or a blog entry -- to a personal channel from a mobile phone. Users can also search for others who share an interest or location, since all content includes location tags, or what Intercasting chief executive Shawn Conahan calls "virtual breadcrumbs."

"The opportunity in social networking is around media, and the mobile, [Internet-] connected camera phone is the perfect media device because it's used to consume and produce media," Conahan says.

Traditional media companies and Internet heavyweights are taking notice. In July, News Corp. bought Intermix Media Inc., the owner of MySpace, for $580 million. Two months earlier, search giant Google acquired Dodgeball.com for an undisclosed sum. Dennis Crowley and Alex Rainert, the co-founders of the site, which enables people to send text message alerts to friends about their location, say they sold to Google because it was the only suitor who didn't want to turn Dodgeball into an ad platform. They're mum about new features except to say they're excited about their new access to projects like Google Talk, the instant messaging and voice chat software unveiled Wednesday.

Although MySpace does not currently offer any features for a mobile phone, co-founder Tom Anderson is looking for partners to help him to create a device, possibly a phone, designed just for members that would let them send instant messages to each other, read mail, post bulletins, blog and photo-blog. He figures that with the size of his audience, which grows by 3.3 million a month, it makes sense.

"The advantage would be someone focusing on MySpace access, but it'd also be fun for the people that use MySpace," he says in an email. "MySpace isn't like Yahoo or MSN. People have a relationship and even an addiction to MySpace. It's something they spend hours on a day, something they rush home to check and access."

The site also plans to provide a simple SMS service for users and create an application that users can download on most major phones, Anderson says.

Verizon Wireless became the first wireless provider to offer any such social networking application when it began letting subscribers download Rabble in early July; 22 of its 32 handsets have the color screen, built-in camera and basic data handling capability required for the service. Cingular customers will be able to use Rabble by the end of the year. By that time, an updated version of the software will have audio and video support.

So far, perhaps because those features are not yet available, people are creating more text than Conahan, the CEO, expected, so much so that in the next version of Rabble the limits for text message length will jump from 300 characters to about 2,000. "Don't underestimate the time a 14-year-old girl has to spend on her phone," he says.

With user sessions lasting an average of 15 minutes, the potential for ad sales is high, but Intercasting does not allow ads; it charges a $3 monthly fee instead.

The biggest technical challenge, Conahan says, was designing an uncluttered interface, and avoiding the temptation to "take a Web site and cram it down inside a mobile phone-size screen." On top of that, every phone is different, which means San Diego-based Intercasting has to maintain a different code base for each class of handset, sometimes even within those classifications, because of varying capabilities of memory. As a result, Rabble functions vary slightly on each model of phone.

The Rabble home page lets users declare their location, conduct a search, browse the entertainment options around them and create a post just like they would create a text message. Enter a title, body text, and attach a photo if you want, then immediately post to your "channel," hosted on the Rabble server.

An interesting twist on Rabble is that its creators went out of their way to include free content from Witness, a human rights group in New York City, which is using the software to publicize itself to an audience of teenagers and people under 35 who it might not otherwise reach. It's chosen to highlight a campaign against violence and abuse inside the California youth prison system. For now, there's just a still photo with background information and a link , but video is coming soon. And once Intercasting adds a new Web analytics package in the next few weeks, the group will track the exact numbers of Rabble visitors.

"People who have Rabble are probably not going to sit down and randomly Google human rights issues," says Matisse Bustos, the outreach coordinator for Witness. "But this only takes 30 seconds for them to read."

Bustos hopes that eventually, Witness can use Rabble in a more ambitious way, to help victims of human rights abuses around the world organize via text messages and record their own videos.

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