AOL Turns to ICQ For Social Network

America Online on Thursday announced its entry into the nascent social networking space with the launch of the invitation-only ICQ Universe.

AOL announced it would build its social network on top of the existing ICQ instant messaging service, which already serves more than eight million active members and counts more than 175 million subscribers worldwide.

The ISP is styling ICQ Universe as a service to enable users worldwide to link-up with friends, family and colleagues and access a dynamic view of the relationships between members. By integrating it fully with ICQ, AOL will enjoy the hook of allowing networked users to instantly communicate with contacts.

AOL’s predictable move into social networking comes at both an exciting and uncertain time social networking tools. Existing social networks like Friendster, Tribe Networks, LinkedIn and Google’s Orkut have been growing in popularity but, for the
most part, revenues are
from these networks; in the evolution of the networks thus far, profitability rarely enters the equation.

Although some executives at social networking sites believe membership fees will soon be a reality, Yael Gavon, director of marketing at ICQ, said ICQ Universe service will remain free to users. “We don’t have to invent how are we going to monetize this. Our general business model of advertising and
partner integration applies to the universe as well,” she said.

ICQ Universe, which was created in-house by AOL’s developers in Israel, will let “guest users” browse member profiles and quickly submit a request to join. Once a request is approved or a member is invited to join the network, the company will let new members gain access to the ICQ Universe user interface and see the relationships between themselves and the community of members.

The service will feature instant messaging and embedded ICQ tools and an online indicator for presence management. The company has also built alerts and reminders into the service and a search function to allow users to find a specific person or a targeted type of person.

Christopher Saunders, managing editor of Instant Messaging Planet, contributed to this report.

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