The right social network for you

With so many social networks dotting the Web, though, it's hard to know which ones are worth your time and bandwidth

With hundreds of millions of user accounts, MySpace is the Internet's most recognizable (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 creating both general-purpose and specialized services--all of them free, just as MySpace is--that 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, though, it's hard to know which ones are worth your time and bandwidth. To help clarify things, we examined 17 alternatives to MySpace in five broad categories: general-purpose, special-purpose, taste-based, mobile, and media-sharing social networks. As we discuss our findings, we'll also 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

Though it began in 2004 as an online yearbook for Harvard students, Facebook soon opened its membership to other universities, then high schools, then 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, neighbors, and coworkers. 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 members objected to being transformed into unwitting (and uncompensated) product endorsers. If you (reasonably) 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.

LinkedIn

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

Like other social networks, LinkedIn revolves around your personal profile. But instead of displaying lists of your favorite bands and collections of party snapshots, your LinkedIn profile showcases your employment history, your professional skills, and your education and awards, and explains how and why you want to be contacted. To get the most out of your LinkedIn membership, you should make these entries brief, complete, and sparkling, just as you would on any resume or curriculum vitae. The most important items in your profile, however, are the recommendations you receive from current and former coworkers and employers regarding the positions you've held. As more members write recommendations about you, you can decide whether to include them in your profile. 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. To improve your chances of receiving a recommendation, consider writing recommendations for your connections without waiting until they ask you for one.

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