America Online Inc. is moving into the burgeoning social networking field with the launch of a new service from its ICQ instant messaging group.
ICQ announced on Thursday its ICQ Universe social networking service that, unlike most social networking sites so far, embeds instant messaging into the services so members can view presence information as well as chat in real time.
Through the ICQ Universe site, members can navigate through their interconnected relationships with other members, create public profiles for making connections, and interact with family, friends, colleagues and others in their network, ICQ officials said.
AOL, of Dulles, Va., is one of the largest Internet companies to jump into social networking, a field first made popular with Friendster Inc. and online dating. Google Inc. in January began experimenting with it through a closely watched project of one of its engineers called Orkut. Microsoft Corp.s Research group also has an internal project called Wallop that includes social networking features, and even Yahoo Inc.s executives have said they are watching social networking developments.
AOL stands to gain more members of its ICQ service if its foray into social networking is successful. Those who join ICQ Universe automatically become members of the ICQ IM service, which has more than 8 million active daily members.
“Social networking is a hot trend in the business, and we believe it will help us get more users and retain existing ones,” said Orey Gilliam, ICQs general manager. “We have made a major attempt to make it different.”
ICQ Universe has adopted an invitation-only model for joining. It chose to require invitations rather than automatically allowing current 175 million registered ICQ users to join but also created a public site where guests can browse member profiles and request an invitation.
“We have so many millions of users in our user base, and we really wanted to bring in those who had an interest and not by default make them members,” Gilliam said. “The essence of this is having users who want to be there.”
ICQ Universe also is taking a very public approach. Unlike other social networking sites, it does not place limits on the number of degrees of separation a member can navigate in the network. Member profiles also can be viewed by all other members, said Roy Klieger, product manager for ICQ Universe.
ICQ users in general are already familiar with publicly sharing information through the communities in the ICQ IM network, and the public approach should help stimulate interaction within ICQ Universe, Klieger said. But, he said, ICQ is considering whether to add more privacy controls in the future.
While ICQ is tapping into its IM service for social networking, the integration stops short of the ICQ IM client itself. For instance, members cannot launch into ICQ Universe directly from the ICQ IM client, Gilliam said, though ICQ is considering such a feature for the future.
Besides being able to integrate IM and presence into social networking, ICQ also has a more global reach than others in the social networking field because of the worldwide use of its IM service, Gilliam said.
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