Social sites shrug off advertising

Just for fun, some college students have created Web sites that connect students to one another through friends. While they could potentially make money from these sites, for now they don't seem interested in that.

Vince Dastaa, a senior at Iowa State University, designed a site called Bigcampus.net, which debuted in April. Like similar social networking sites, Dastaa's site first requires users to create a personal profile. Then they can search for other student users who attend certain colleges or have similar interests. They can invite other users to be their friends and then access profiles belonging to their friends' contacts.

"When the site first started it was really just for me to see if I could do it. Really it was just a side project," says Dastaa, who was inspired by sites such as Friendster, which is similar but targeted at non-students as well.

Tyler Winkelvoss, one of three Harvard University graduates who helped launch the site ConnectU.com in May, says the idea was inspired in the winter of 2002 by "the weak social scene at Harvard and the weak social interaction between Harvard and the other schools in the Boston area."

Meeting people in person can take a lot of effort, Winklevoss says, and he hopes ConnectU can make it easier to find students who share classes or interests. Now the site has more than 20,000 members, according to Winklevoss. Twenty-six members are AU students.

ConnectU's founders filed a lawsuit in September alleging that Mark Zuckerberg, another Harvard student, stole the idea for ConnectU to found thefacebook.com, another college social networking site that launched in February, The Eagle previously reported. Chris Hughes, spokesman for thefacebook, says his site has more than 650,000 members, 3,109 of which are AU students.

Dastaa says Bigcampus.net now has about 500 members, mostly Midwestern students who learned of the site through friends. It is run by Dastaa and "a couple of friends that help out here and there," he says.

Two AU seniors even joined the trend, creating AU Icebreaker this summer, The Eagle previously reported.

Other collegiate social networking sites have a similar setup. Winklevoss says that while several people work on the site, it is hard to say exactly how many. He says he and his brother Cameron, who has also been around since the site's beginning, do most of the work.

"The people on the team are pretty multifaceted," Winklevoss says.

Hughes says seven students work on thefacebook, but "we're in the process of becoming more formalized, so 'employees' is a loose term. We're all college students working on the site."

Similar sites have been around in some form for almost 10 years. The oldest is Classmates.com, which debuted in 1995 and is used to connect people who share past work, school or military experience. Other sites include Linked In, which connects people through their work, and Friendster, which connects networks of friends. Their memberships sometimes include millions of people.

Mitchell Levy, chief strategist for the Value Framework Institute, a California company that helps businesses operate more effectively, says college-centered Web sites have the potential for success.

"Anyone can put up a Web site, give it the name they want and have a business," he says. "Is there a need to connect college students across campuses? I'd say the answer is yes."

In a paper released in January, Levy and analyst Gary George said that companies such as Friendster and Classmates.com - of which there are more than 20 - are more focused on earning a profit than their collegiate counterparts.

The founders of college-centered sites can find it hard to pin down where the money came from to start their sites. "It's hard to tell how much money it has cost to start up the site, because we're very much in the start-up phase," Hughes says of thefacebook. "In general, it's been some combination of advertising and private investment."

Bigcampus.net started out on a spare computer Vastaa had under his desk, he says. He can host the site for free because he used to work for his Internet service provider. Any expenses have come from his pocket.

However, sites targeted at other audiences are more formal.

"Most have a solid business model(s) with fees being required for network analysis or premium searching," George and Levy said in their paper. "The firms that will succeed must address their user's needs while finding a tolerable model for making money."

However, social networking Web sites for college students offer free membership for all users. Those who run the sites say it will stay that way.

"The whole idea was to create a site that was cool and fun," ConnectU's Winklevoss says. "It's not a corporation, and it's not about charging and stuff."

Students might also be more hesitant to use a social networking Web site that charged for membership. Neora Luria, a sophomore in the School of Communication, is not a member of them now, although friends have tried to get her to sign up. "I don't use it even when it is free, so if it wasn't free, I definitely wouldn't," she says.

Vastaa's goal is not to make money from Bigcampus.net, so he doesn't see a need to look for advertising revenue. "I get hundreds of hits per hour so advertising could be very lucrative, but I think too many ads detracts from the functionality of the site," he says.

However, both thefacebook and ConnectU have small advertisements.

"We do have a lot of advertisers who want to advertise on thefacebook," Hughes says. "Advertisers do seem to find it effective, but the only way I'm gauging that is by their statements to us."

Winklevoss says that Web sites like ConnectU are good for advertisers, especially those who want to target certain types of students or those who attend a specific college. However, the site's operators are not focused on this for now.

"I guess the jury's still out on whether it will come to fruition," he says.

Levy says advertisers seek Web sites that attract their target audiences.

"Any site that commands a specific audience is good," he says. "If the price is right, it's a good target"

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