Back in the bad old days of the dotcom boom, to give your stock a boost all you needed to do was to append the.com suffix to your company name. Everyone was doing it, from oil companies to greengrocers; not joining in made it look like you didn't get the digital revolution.
Now, if you spend any time among the venture capitalists of Silicon Valley, the conversation revolves around social networks. Anything being pitched for funding seems to have a social-networking component - the success of MySpace (sold to News Corp), Bebo and Facebook have made these web 2.0 business models very attractive prospects.
Is social networking just the new 'dotcom', or is it changing the fabric of the web, and the next big media business sector?
First, we need to understand what social networking is. Most outside observers think about it in very narrow terms, equating it to what happens on Bebo - social in the 'leisure' rather the 'collective' sense But these sites, though important, are just one manifestation of the phenomenon.
At its most fundamental, social networking is about the ability the internet gives people to share their experience. So the term covers a broad spectrum, from sites where users expressly contribute information through to those that collect tacit data and share it back.
At one end of this spectrum, the best-known sites - MySpace, Bebo, LinkedIn, Facebook - have experienced huge growth as people have discovered the power of connecting with others, either supplementing their existing social networks, or finding new friends and making new contacts.
This space is changing rapidly at the moment. In May Facebook opened up its API - the code that lets other people and companies develop systems that integrate with it - and within a month, 40,000 new applications have been developed for the site.
Ranging from a horoscope widget to a tool that lets users rate people anonymously, some applications have already attracted more than 6m users, and contributed to a massive takeoff in Facebook usage in general. If you've been getting a lot of Facebook invitations recently, this is why.
In the middle of the spectrum are sites including Digg and Flickr. While you might add content yourself, the biggest area of activity is rating or classifying content added by others. Popular rating site hotornot.com is a great example: 12bn votes have been cast in the past seven years as people put themselves up for judgment and rate each other. …