Lucas Fleischer met Sam back in high school, on a trip to Israel. Over the years he heard rumors Sam was married and living in Thailand. In fact, Sam had divorced and moved back to the United States. The two finally bumped into each other earlier this year - not in person, but through a new kind of online community called Friendster.com.
Friendster - and other websites like it - try to answer a pressing need of the Internet. Today's global village is so, well, global that it's nearly impossible to navigate the enormous maze of anonymous chat rooms to rekindle old friendships or forge new relationships. The emerging online communities, by contrast, foster such ties by using a decidedly old-fashioned notion. They mimic an intimate dinner party, where friends mingle, trade stories - and meet each other's friends.
Less than a year old, the concept is generating mushrooming traffic among online users and increasing interest among venture capitalists. But some observers wonder whether the novelty will wear off.
"It's much more similar to the ways you find others in the real world," says Margaret McLaughlin, professor of communication at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication in Los Angeles. But it shifts the natural process into high gear, she adds. Now, that once invisible extended community is neatly organized on a computer screen, and people formerly out of reach are at one's fingertips.
The leader among these virtual fraternities is Friendster. Launched in March, it is still in a testing phase. Over the summer, its servers sputtered under a surge in traffic. Some 2 million users have caused high-profile players in Silicon Valley to take notice, collectively investing $1 million earlier this month. Also in trial mode, Tribe.net, the newest in this spate of sites, has attracted 15,500 users since its launch in August.
Mr. Fleischer uses Friendster mostly to hang out with his current friends and reconnect with old ones, like Sam. "There are people who are back in my life, and I have Friendster to thank for that," he says. Fleischer recently reached a Friendster "milestone." His immediate circle reached 100 last week as friends - less than half of whom live nearby - flocked to the Friendster scene. The total gives Fleishcer access to 550,000 people in his extended network. That means Lucas in Los Angeles can connect to Stephanie in Honolulu through high school friend Bonnie in Boston, who knows Stephanie from college.
One drawback, Fleischer says, is that the site can be addictive. A former Friendster's life was overtaken that way. Lured in by Friendster's new format, "Terboted" was soon trolling the site nonstop. "I simply couldn't get enough of this node network that had actual living breathing friends of mine in it," he recounts in an online blog.
Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor of interactive telecommunications at New York University, compares some users' obsessions with collecting Friendsters to a high school popularity contest spun out of control. Once stripped of real-world restrictions like time and space, he explains, participation in online communities can "quickly accelerate beyond the realm of human behavior."
But unlike a word processor, social software constantly adapts to its users, professor Shirky says. A few entrepreneurial Friendsters have even taken to auctioning their networks on eBay, guaranteeing the buyer an instant social circle.
Tribe is trying to reconcile the technology with the sociology. Unlike Friendster's, Tribe's users can adjust the size of the community they're looking through, so someone looking for a loan can restrict the search to close friends, and someone searching for a couch could hunt through their extended network.