AUTHOR: linda TITLE: What character do you play DATE: 6:41:00 PM ----- BODY:
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I attended SCU's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Entrepreneur Speaker Series panel yesterday evening with four of the top ten leading social networking sites -- Affinity Circles, Bebo, Friendster and LinkedIn -- discussing their startup stories and giving advice on starting a social networking company.

Fred Stutzman, researcher on social networking and social software, moderated a discussion on each sites' success with the current social networking phenomenon and their growing pains during startup.

I've been half-heartedly poking around social networks since Friendster led the boom in 2004, but providing homepages and event listings and picture albums is serious business. There are hundreds of companies out there that have built infrastructure and international teams around my desire to share weekend photos and chat about local art. Innovative engineers toil tirelessly to respond and address the "information needs of users," launchings up to seven new functions a day, constantly reading metrics, and surveying for feedback.

Keith Rabois, a wise VC who's also VP Business and Corporate Development at LinkedIn said: "We don't collect feedback... users don't know what they want -- we look at what they're trying to do."

The charismatic 25-year-old Steve Loughlin, President and CEO of Affinity Circles, said, "After graduating Stanford, I was the only non-engineer on staff when the Board asked me to be CEO… and we needed to hire, so I actually used my social network to find people."

Now as a five-network user and full-time marketeer, the discussion on viral marketing was the most compelling -- each panelist preached viral as the essential method to building their user-base (though careful to not divulge the "secret sauce"), and continue to build business plans and financial forecasts around this essential part of the processes to introduce advertising.

But, how can the ads be successful? Tribe has succumbed to banner ads on their site, but I don't pay any attention to them. Friendster is so ad-heavy I don't use it anymore. Bebo seems to think you'll want to buy the product your friend features on her homepage.

There's still lots to tame out 'dare, Partner.