Enthusiasts find big is not always best with social networks

By: By ANICK JESDANUN
By: By ANICK JESDANUN

NEW YORK (AP) -- Forget Facebook, MySpace or any other online hangout that boasts tens or hundreds of millions of people.

For Teresa Munoz, Athlinks (population: 34,000) is the place to be. She uses the community devoted to competitive running, swimming and biking events to find training partners and get advice, including information about her first Ironman triathlon.

Munoz, 45, of Hacienda Heights, Calif., said she tried finding like-minded people on MySpace, but found only those "looking for people to date, not really there for the sport. I didn't get as much out of that."

MySpace, Facebook and, to a smaller degree, Bebo may be getting most of the attention, but social-networking sites geared toward hobbies, sports and other specific interests - alongside those targeting certain age groups, ethnicities or diseases - are finding growing success as supplements to the larger online hangouts or even as replacements.

Katie Ellis, 23, an Athlinks user from Phoenix, said she likes the fact that the site automatically generates rivals, alongside friends, based on races in which they have unknowingly competed together. A competitor at heart, Ellis said she often peeks at their race times and notes how often she had beaten them.

Why not MySpace or Facebook? Ellis said that after seeing her older brother use both, she's concluded "I think it's a waste of time."

Like MySpace and Facebook, the free sites are largely generating revenue through advertising. As the larger sites struggle to capitalize on their diverse membership, the specialty sites believe they can offer advertisers a smaller, but passionate audience for which they'd be willing to pay more - as much as 10 times more, Athlinks estimates.

The popularity of such niches goes to show that big isn't always better.

Though the larger sites let users create groups on any topic or interest, finding the right groups and identifying the most dedicated members can be daunting.

"What happens is a medium reaches a point where the users of it start to think it's interesting but it's too big, there are too many people, it's too difficult to find what I'm interested in," said Steve Jones, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who tracks Internet culture.

It happened with television. It happened with magazines. It's now happening with the Internet and social-networking sites.

ActiveBoating.com has fewer than 200 members congregating around recreational boating, but the site's vice president, Randy Young, said he'd rather have the most passionate 200 than a million with only passing interest.

The 1 million users on Goodreads can find one another based on specific books they have read, are reading or want to read - the "compare books" feature returns the percentage of matches between two users' virtual bookshelves. On News Corp.'s MySpace and Facebook, search is limited to specific keywords or titles.

"I find the people who loved the same novels I did and send them friend invitations," said Laura Stamps, 51, an author and Goodreads user in Columbia, S.C. "That may be one reason why my (nearly 500 friends) are so chatty. We love the same books."

Ravelry has become so popular among knitters and crochet lovers that users must wait months before getting off the waiting list for membership.

Those who make it on can share patterns they have created along with ideas on what they can make with the specific types of yarn they own.

"This is invaluable research for someone who is about to invest many dollars and hours of their life in a knitting project," said Mary-Helen Ward, 56. "It certainly cuts down the chances of expensive disappointment."

Ward said Ravelry offers depth and breadth on knitting like no other social network. After all, where else could the eLearning project manager at the University of Sydney find "Ivory Tower Fiber Freaks," a forum devoted to academics who knit?

She said she tried a few craft-related groups on Facebook but found participants "all really young, immature and not very knitting-literate."

For the startups behind these sites, there's value in focus.

None are expecting the same types of multimillion dollar deals - News Corp. bought MySpace $580 million, while Microsoft Corp. spent $240 million for a 1.6 percent stake in Facebook and Time Warner Inc.'s AOL plans to pay $850 million for Bebo.

But they say they are holding their own - not all are profitable or breaking even yet, but they are getting there. Troy Busot, founder of Athlinks, said profits from unrelated businesses are subsidizing the site for now, and any ad revenue is going into improvements.

"We're really just in a perpetual growth mode," he said. "As long as we can afford it, we will continue to grow the features."

SkiSpace.com, meanwhile, just formally opened Dec. 1, with the backing of Olympic skier Bode Miller, and it is still working on marketing opportunities, such as specialized offerings for ski resorts.

Facebook and MySpace are indirectly acknowledging their smaller rivals by letting them - and anyone else - build "widgets" that integrate with the larger sites. That way, Facebook or MySpace users can keep tabs on their other networks without logging off.

In a statement, MySpace added that its users have created thousands of groups around shared interests and hobbies, such that users can "live their entire life online."

Jones, the Internet professor, said the large sites do need to be mindful of their smaller rivals if users end up splitting their time - along with advertising opportunities.

Randy Jang, 54, of Whistler, British Columbia, said SkiSpace offers a sense of intimacy and comfort, even though technically it's as open to the rest of the world as the larger sites. He said there's a sense that as a targeted site, only skiers - and specifically ski racers - are likely to look.

Montreal skier Brittany Godin, 22, has long used MySpace and Facebook to stay in touch with friends. Since SkiSpace opened, she has been logging as many as 10 times a day to check in with fellow skiers.

"Right from the get-go everybody has at least one thing in common," she said. "They share the same passion, ... which I thought was pretty cool."

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On the Net:

Athlinks: http://www.athlinks.com

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com

SkiSpace: http://skispace.com

Ravelry: http://ravelry.com

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