ST. LOUIS -- Social networks are the bars and nightclubs of the Internet.
Some cater to folks looking for a quiet evening on the town. Others offer a spot to share a quick story and a cold beer after a long day at work. And then there are those places where you can usually count on someone drinking too much and taking off their clothes.
Picking a social network, like choosing a favorite bar, isn't always easy. It's not enough to just like it. It also must appeal to the people you're trying to connect with.
"There's no point in being on a social networking site if none of your friends are there," said Danah Boyd, a researcher at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.
But in an arena that grows more competitive each day, the personality of the individual sites becomes increasingly important in attracting and keeping people. It's no longer enough to simply offer a way to share thoughts, music and photos. The novelty is wearing off.
Heavyweights MySpace and Facebook face a host of competitors, both new and old, trying to capitalize on our collective desire to connect with one another. You or someone you know is on MySpace. But what about Plaxo, LinkedIn, FriendFeed, Readr, Iminta, Pownce, Posterous, Bebo, Hi5 or Plurk?
Most people don't have the time, energy or inclination to stake out so many corners of the Internet.
Like Reuben Malicoat of Swansea, Ill., they make a choice.
After a two-year stint with MySpace, the former Marine decided -- after a few days on Facebook -- he needed a new home for his social networking. My- Space users, he said, are a little too absorbed in socializing and partying.
"At 23, I've got to start thinking about the future," Malicoat said. "It's more of a mature crowd. I'm not saying they don't drink. But they don't show pictures of themselves puking."
But what's ideal for Malicoat does nothing for Ali Thornsberry of St. Charles, Mo., who sees Facebook, with its Ivy League origins, as stodgy and restrictive.
"MySpace seems more modern-looking," Thornsberry said. "It appeals to my eye. Facebook just seems like it's old."
For a site that's been around for just over four years to be branded "old" demonstrates one of the challenges facing social networks. Rapid changes in technology and platforms threaten to send users scurrying to newer ventures. Consider, for instance, the growing popularity of microblogging services like Twitter, which allow users to fire off short messages to friends through their cell phones.
A year ago, MySpace was far and away the dominant player, collecting 114 million unique visitors worldwide in June 2007, compared with just 52 million for Facebook, according to ComScore, a firm that measures Internet traffic. A year later, Facebook had taken the lead with 132 million unique visits versus 117 million for MySpace.
In the U.S., however, MySpace maintained its dominance with nearly twice as many unique visitors. Still, even in the domestic market, Facebook is growing nearly twice as fast, according to ComScore.
Figuring out which of the younger upstarts might challenge the status quo is anyone's guess.
LinkedIn has proven popular with career-oriented adults, with more than 4 million unique visitors in June, more than doubling its 2007 total, according to ComScore. But with a more corporate approach to networking, the site seems to lack a more broad-based appeal.
The next frontier in social networking, most experts say, is likely to be the mobile realm, relying on increasingly smarter cell phones.
That's what Loopt is aiming for with its GPS sharing system that keeps users up-to-date on the whereabouts of others in their network.
Much must still happen before mobile social networking pushes into the mainstream.
It could be that the future of social networking is smaller rather than bigger.
"In some ways, MySpace and Facebook have gotten too big," said Matt Carlson, an assistant professor of communications at St. Louis University. "People are going out and getting all these friends. But sometimes, these are people we don't have any real connection to."