Social networking website gives newcomers a 'way in' to life in London

MyExpandedCircle.com aims to connect kindred spirits and help people break out of their normal routines.

"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life," the great essayist Samuel Johnson once said. "For there is in London all that life can afford."

That may still be true today. And yet, like many of the world's great population centers, it can also be a forbidding, baffling, lonely place for new arrivals.

But Rob Branston wants to change all that. With the help of a website, loads of enthusiasm, and a firm belief that Londoners are tired neither of their city nor of life, he has a plan that will get subdued people out of a rut and into new friendships, hobbies, pastimes, and social circles.

"I was amazed when I came to London that there was so much to do and so few people to do it with," says Mr. Branston, a 32-year-old marketing executive originally from Leeds in northern England. "You're really limited by your friends and colleagues, and there are so many things you would do if they had a different group of friends. You're missing out on so much."

Branston's idea is simple: an online social club in which users can link up with people for a wide range of activities, from a simple drink or movie after work to sporting and other recreational activities.

The MyExpandedCircle.com club he formally launched three weeks ago offers credible, safe alternatives for meeting new people in a city where new acquaintances can be hard to make. In the mold of successful US-based social networking websites like myspace.com, friendster.com, and facebook.com, MyExpandedCircle.com aims to be a popular place for those looking to branch out of their routine and meet like-minded people.

At a gathering of members last week, it was clear to see that the idea has broad appeal to old and young, men and women, expats and locals.

Take Stacey Ropiha. A 37-year-old New Zealander, she has lived in London for eight years. Friends have come and gone, many have married and settled down and had children, or moved out of town for other reasons.

"When I first came I found it easy to find a good group of friends through work," she says. "But it's not the kind of place where it's just easy to go out and meet people. And as you get older, social circles shrink. People get married, have children and move out."

A 'way in' to London

Then there is Henry Morbish, a Brit whose American wife Melissa has recently returned with him to London.

"This has been a lifeline, particularly for her," says the 33-year-old communications consultant. "We've been here six months and she has found it hard to get her own network of friends. The most daunting thing about coming to a foreign city is how do you network your way in? London is an extraordinary city, one of the great cities of the world. But how do you find a way in?"

On the website, members post ideas for things they want to do. If enough people sign up, it happens. If not, it doesn't. For the frustrated soccer player whose friends don't play, there is a 5-a-side group just starting up. For women who've always fancied tea at the famous Fortnum and Mason store but have no one to go with, a trip is in the offing.

The idea ties into several emerging trends. Hectic lifestyles leave little time for nurturing social lives. A growing number of households are single. Another simple website, Friends Reunited, which tapped into people's need for friendship by offering to put them in touch with old school friends, is a roaring success and was recently sold for more than $200 million.

Will it turn into a dating service?

Then there is the dating game. Online dating services have grown rapidly in Britain in recent years, playing on the growing number of singles with little time for forging long acquaintanceships. One recent survey found that two thirds of young singles have signed up to some form of dating agency.

MyExpandedCircle.com is not a dating service, Branston insists, but it seems likely that it will be used as such.

"I'm pretty sure it will be used as a dating thing," says Jonathan Jones. "If you are single and you are looking for a date, it's a good place to come. The pressure is off - you can meet who you want and get to know them without that artificial sense of, 'it's-you-and-me-let's-make-it-work.' "

Mr. Jones says that for him the beauty of MyExpandedCircle.com is that it takes him outside of his daily pattern and prods him into unexplored parts of his own city. A recent group walk through parts of east London affected by World War II air raids opened his eyes to history of which he was only dimly aware.

"I go from home to the Tube (subway), from Tube to work, and then two minutes away from my work I can find myself in a fascinating place I've never been to before simply because it's slightly off my daily route," he says.

So far, almost 500 people have signed up to MyExpandedCircle.com, not a huge number in a city of millions, but Branston insists it is still in its early days.

Members will eventually pay a £35 ($60) subscription, but Branston says he is not worried about making money at this stage. He's more interested in spreading the network to other cities in Britain - and possibly even the US.

"When I'm traveling for business, I eat on my own, go to my room on my own, watch television," says Ian Maccadoo, another member. "But if this was up and running in other major towns I would definitely think: 'Let's go and find out what the clubs are up to tonight.' "

Morbish says MyExpandedCircle.com is an idea that deserves to survive, but will need a good dose of "viral marketing," otherwise known as good old-fashioned word of mouth.

"Like all the best ideas that survived the dotcom crash, it's entrepreneurial and imaginative and harnesses all the best things about the Internet," he says. "It deserves to survive. After all, how many people out there this evening were thinking, 'I'd like to go out but I don't have anyone to go with?' "

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