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Youth Drawn to Social Networking Web Sites

More than 100-million people worldwide have joined the cyber-socializing revolution. Social networking Web sites have sparked intense debate about safety concerns and the decline of personal social interaction. But more and more young people are sitting alone in front of their computer screens -- to socialize.

Sitting in the offices of their college newspaper, American University students Erie Meyer and Ryan Grannan-Doll are engaged in a popular collegiate pastime that has nothing to do with their work on the paper. They are logged into the Internet to read about each other on social networking Web sites, such as Facebook and MySpace.

"'Do you really work at the library?” asked Erie, as she looked at Ryan’s online profile.

“Yeah, I really do,” Ryan replied.

“What do you do there?” asked Erie.

“I work in periodicals,” said Ryan.

“See, I'm finding things out about you right now! Our relationship has more depth now,” exclaimed Erie.

“But people should communicate this to each other. They shouldn't go on the computer and go, 'Uh, I know about this person,'” he responded.

“See, that's the thing,” said Erie. “People think MySpace and Facebook are some sort of alien form of interaction. In reality, it's just another depth of the communication we already use."

For millions of young people in the United States, MySpace and Facebook offer a new way to communicate.

MySpace says about 230,000 new members join each day, and more than 80-million people have created free profiles. MySpace is one of the top five most visited sites in the United States.

Facebook has almost eight-million members who share information, pictures and interests.

The process of using these sites is as simple as logging on, writing a bit about yourself and what you do, e-mailing your friends asking them to visit your profile, and before you know it, you're interacting with your friends, your friends' friends, and even people you've never met -- all by sitting solo at your computer.

John Hiler is the co-founder of a similar social Web site, called Xanga. He says young people today experience a different social reality.

"When I was a kid, we would sit on my front door stoop, and chat with our friends, and we'd go to the swimming pool and hang out. That's no longer the sole experience. What we're seeing now is that people are choosing to live online, and they're choosing to wake up an hour early, before they go to school and they sign on to instant messenger, and they chat with their friends and they come home from school and they get back on to the Internet, and check their e-mail and spend all their time in cyberspace," said Hiler.

Xanga allows people to publish online, otherwise known as blogging. That gives users a chance to have their thoughts read by anyone with Internet access.

Facebook was designed to connect people who attended college together, allowing them to post pictures and send short messages.

MySpace is a more open forum, designed to connect people of all ages, interests and backgrounds.

People use these sites to find new connections and to plan events. But Erie Meyer, the American University student, says people often visit these sites to revisit old friends and past parties.

"Particularly on a Monday, after a weekend of taking pictures on Facebook, I like to have it up to see what pictures are being posted of me,” said Erie. “In true college tradition, weekends are crazy and on Monday morning there are hundreds and hundreds, sometimes thousands of photos uploaded of that weekend."

Users such as Erie check-in on people they haven't physically seen in a day or even a year.

"I worked in Spain over the summer and I've been able to keep in touch with people I met there through this,” she said. “It's less formal than sending an e-mail with an update about my life."

Babak Balakhanlou, who was born in Iran, knows that social Web sites are not just an American phenomenon.

Now in graduate school studying economics, the 24-year-old keeps up with college friends on Facebook. He also has a profile on a site run by Google called Orkut.

Orkut says some 350,000 Iranians have profiles, and it is also wildly popular with Brazilians, Indians, and Pakistanis.

"Orkut, I use mostly for keeping in touch with my Persian friends. I have a lot of Persian friends on there, as a matter of fact,” noted Babak. “I may have two or three non-Persian friends on there."

The online connection helped Babak reconnect in person.

"I was able to locate a bunch of my friends that I hadn't kept in touch with in 10 years through Orkut. I pretty much looked up the last name, or they looked up my last name, and they found me, or I found them and it was good,” said Babak. “And I actually ended up visiting them, visiting a couple of friends in Canada, after such a long time and it's good."

But musician Will Smith uses such sites to reach out to people he does not already know.

Will is a 33-year-old jazz musician and professor of music at American University. He is one of almost two million artists who use MySpace profiles to build their fan bases and make industry connections.

"(It's) one of the perfect tools to use, because it's basically free promotion. (It) allows you to connect with people you wouldn't normally connect with, such as people in the industry, even outside the industry. People around the world that you normally wouldn't have contact with," said Will.

The professor emphasizes the networking aspect of the social networking sites.

"I remember spending a whole night looking for DJs -- anyone that had a name with DJ in it, I was going to their page because part of the deal is to get your music heard by the people," recalled Will.

Visitors can listen to Will's songs by clicking on the radio icon on his MySpace profiles. That's one way his music made it across the ocean.

"I was able to hook up with a DJ in the UK and I e-mailed him an mp3 of one of my tracks and he's spinning it in the clubs right now. Through MySpace,” Will said, “He found me, and said 'I like the music, please send an mp3,' and I said, 'OK,' so he gave me his off-MySpace e-mail and I e-mailed it to him."

In addition to The WES Group, Will plays in a band called Miles Long. Its lead singer is Malcolm Jamal Warner, an actor and musician.

Malcolm learned about MySpace from a 14-year-old relative who came for a visit -- and spent a lot of time visiting the site.

"I was like, 'Dude, what are you doing? What is this MySpace? Get off my computer.' And sure enough a bunch of artists were telling me how MySpace is a great networking tool for artists. A great promotional vehicle to get your stuff heard, and that's what impressed me most about MySpace -- getting in contact with these really impressive artists and all the really great music that I would not otherwise have been exposed to," Malcolm noted.

Millions of new users each week are heeding the call of these sites -- showing that it is possible to meet, work, explore, connect and reconnect, while sitting alone in front of a computer monitor.