Facebook currently boasts over 500 million active users, with the average user connected to around 80 pages, groups and events. To many people, that's a great reason to sign up - it's where everyone is.
For others, though, the exact opposite is true. Why would you want to be stuck in a network with the great unwashed when you could be idly sitting back in the virtual equivalent of a plush country club, hobnobbing with your fellow elites without having to care what the proles are saying about Justin Bieber or Katie Price?
For every social network that longs to attract millions of users, there's another out there that simply craves a handful of the right users. Are you missing out by not being one of them?
Love and ego
There are three types of closed social network, based roughly around who you are, what you are, and how much you've got. If you need to ask whether or not you qualify, usually you don't.
ASMALLWORLD, for instance, claims to replicate existing connections, and is invitation-only. If you want to get in, you're expected to harness your existing contacts to acquire access.
Affluence.org will let you join its ranks for free, but only if you can prove that you have a minimum net worth of $3 million, or an annual household income of $300,000 plus. Cash-strapped geniuses might be given a break and let in under the wire, but only if five provably rich people agree to invite them in on merit.
Not all of these locked-down networks are about money, though. A few, like BeautifulPeople.com prefer to judge purely on appearance. You can register with the site for free, but you also have to supply a photo (without sunglasses) for existing members to rate. If they decide you're worthy of being in their presence, you're welcomed into its no-doubt expensively sculpted bosom. If not, the Soylent Vats await.
Unlike most of these social sites, you can at least poke around BeautifulPeople.com - even if you have a face that makes paint curdle - to see what you're missing out on.
After a quick browse through a few member profiles, we can safely say that not everyone is a supermodel, and the level of chat is pretty much what you'd expect - the highlight of our trip being the 'How to pick up a girl/boy' type groups that let us know that the beautiful people don't always have it easy. Of course, they might just be acting humble. Maybe.
It's always said that it's not what you know, but who you know that counts, and a quick look at the elite networking sites largely reinforces that. Most of the more prominent ones don't expect you to fill in a form and join online, but to be invited directly by an existing member. This means that if you're not already in those circles, simply having a PC is no more likely to get you in than following Stephen Fry on Twitter is to score you a dinner invitation with the man himself.
Aside from anything else, having a friend on the inside is the only way to know what most of these sites and services actually do - if they do anything at all. Anyone can put up a webpage claiming to be an exclusive club, but very few of the better-known ones offer much of a carrot to lure in members beyond 'our acceptance is special'.
Indeed, AngelsCircle.com doesn't even bother with good English on its information page. "It's on its own nature to be closed to non-eligible parties," it claims, along with the great request for people who think they might be a good fit to - and we quote - "let us know of their successful existence". We'll get right on that…
Few of the business sites are willing to break this cryptic secrecy, although a couple do at least link to specific services that their company offers - Qube, for instance, is a social network run by Quintessentially Group, which specialises in high-power concierge services and similar luxuries.
It's notable that while its social network is online, Quintessentially is keen to point out that its wider service also involves real-world networking. At least for the moment, this is likely to be an important part of any specialised network.
No electronic communication can replace the importance of face-to-face chats and a firm handshake, and no email can build the same positive connection you can get from a really good business lunch. Friends made online always become much more real in person.
Levels of power
The dating sites are a little less circumspect, with names like 'Millionaire Cougar' and 'Sugardaddie.com' making it rather obvious what their members are looking for in a 'social connection'. Beyond that, not every closed site or event is about raw power and influence.
Scispace.net, for instance, is aimed at scientists looking to share and collaborate with one another. InMobile.org is geared towards executives working in wireless-based industries, which can be directors at huge companies, or qualifying start-ups. It currently claims over 400 members, which is nothing compared to Facebook, but if they're the sort of people you need to meet, it's still plenty.
Most industries will have a few such private forums and invite-only services, like ConnectedInvestors.com for the real-estate world.
Most of the exclusive services you'll see online are dating and elite sites like this, because the smaller ones have no need to advertise their existence. Simply hearing about them means you're the right kind of person. They don't want outsiders - not because outsiders don't have money, but because they're not part of the conversation.
These forums tend to be focused on talking freely about a specific topic, whether it's discussing a trade secret like a magic trick, or simply blowing off some steam. Work or opportunities will probably show up, but this will usually happen organically - as a benefit of being around the right people, rather than as a specific reason to sign up and get your name known there.
But what of the non-elite services, like Facebook and LinkedIn? In a way, they're no less exclusive than the others. True, anybody can sign up to them, but that doesn't get you any closer to being part of the networks that matter - whether they're personal or professional, you have to persuade other human beings to let you into their circles of trust, work and friendship.
The classic mistake is to assume that simply being there guarantees people will notice you - especially if they have hundreds of online friends or casually accept anyone with a pulse into their not-so inner circle. Simply being listed is effectively irrelevant, no matter which service you're on or how much you paid to join.
However, if you can make a good initial connection, these services are a great way to keep it alive. You're the first to see if the person you want to suck up to has a problem you can help with, and who they're talking to. You may not be given an invitation to a fancy party, but at least you're in with a shot of seeing which ones to aspire to. Simply being a known quantity carries lots of weight, especially if it's backed up by a connection that makes you more than just another contact.
In LinkedIn's case, this goes even further. Most users simply register their profile and occasionally update a job title or add a new contact. Head into the 'Groups' section though, and the odds are good that there'll be one where you can more directly network with people in your specific area.
The good ones tend to be members-only, with a few hundred people registered. As with other industry-specific sites, that may not sound particularly impressive, but the advantage is that your odds of being recognised and impressing people are much, much higher.
Most industries are close-knit, and you never know who those people know or might become. It's one thing to approach somebody successful, but to have known - or better yet, helped them - before that is a powerful thing to have on your side. At worst, it can't hurt.
Most of us want to feel special, and being chosen for something never hurts. In the case of social networking though, would it really make much difference to our lives?
In most cases, no. Professionally, finding the right groups is unlikely to hurt. There might be an ego boost in being thought sexy by anonymous strangers.
The outer circle
But are we missing out by not being members of some great gold-card-holding club? Not really. While we're sure such things are nice for people with the money to make use of them, in practice, they're the kind of club you only need to join if you're already part of a group that expects you to. That's also the only way you'll find out which ones actually matter.
In most cases, it's not what closed-off social networks are that makes them appealing, but what they represent: the chance of a short cut - of being spirited away into a better world. There will be deals done behind those closed-off pages, just like in the smoke-filled gentlemen's clubs of old, with contacts being made, parties organised and all the other high-flying acts of the social elite.
If you're not part of that group, though, there's a limit to how far you can be involved, regardless of how much you might have paid to get in and rub shoulders with the elite. Instead, you're better off focusing on what the social networks that really matter to your life right now are able to offer. Build a reputation. Build your contacts. Make yourself someone worth getting to know, regardless of how many cheques you can write.
Beyond that, don't worry. There are plenty of opportunities out there to be grasped, no matter who you are, what you are, or how much you've got. Seize them now. The rest, if you still want it, can come later.
Are you too rich for Facebook?
If you're a premiership footballer and don't fancy gadding around Wilmslow and Alderley Edge, you can still live a decadent life online. Here are three exclusive social networks that are waiting for you...
HotEnough is a networking and dating site for the uncommonly attractive. To apply, submit three photos for the screening processes. If you pass, the site's members will rate you. Do well and you're in.
This invite-only site features home-made videos by rich people (including Hayden Panettiere), with an emphasis on fashion, fast cars and exotic destinations.
If you've splashed out on a million-dollar apartment in a new city, you'll need to make some friends. Not just any friends - ones with similar aspirations and expectations. Join and you'll never be lonely again.
First published in PC Plus Issue 307
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