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Facebook, Chaggle and GirlsAskGuys? Young social networks based here are aiming to find their place in a crowded market.

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It didn't exactly send shock waves across the Internet when St. Louis-based social network Chaggle opened for business in May. And yet company founders Clayton Smith and Greg Stephenson are convinced they have a potential hit on their hands.

They're just like the folks who came up with the ideas for Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Pownce, SixDegrees and Meetro. And don't knock yourself out wondering about the latter three - each is a social network that failed.

That's the challenge Smith and Stephenson face. Operating on a tiny budget, they've jumped into the fray with dozens of other sites fighting for the attention of Internet users who ultimately make or break every social network.

It's an industry that's grown thick with competitors, making it increasingly difficult to become the next big thing.

Potential users - many already investing considerable time in their favorite networks - can only be stretched so thin.

"We can add new services, but we can't add more time to the day," said Steve Jones, communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Like others, Jones doubts there's even room for another Facebook to rise up.

He compares the evolution of the social networking industry to the earlier days of mass media when today's reigning leaders took control. Once they became entrenched, the national newspapers, magazines and networks became virtually impossible to dislodge.

"The only way for others to get their foot in the door was to go very local or be niche-oriented," Jones said.

And as companies like Facebook grow larger, they become less vulnerable. The reigning king of social networking, with more than 75 million unique visitors each month, is valued at $10 billion, based on a Russian investor's recent $200 million purchase of a 2 percent stake in the firm. That makes the company quite formidable and able to respond to threats.

"They can incorporate new features, or they can buy people," said Dean Terry, director of emerging media at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Not everyone believes the social networking arms race is over. Some experts argue the industry is too young to write off the possibility of a new superstar emerging. Remember, they say, that it took just five years for Facebook to rise from infancy to claim its throne.

Why can't there be another Facebook or MySpace lurking out there somewhere? asked Cathy Dwyer, a computer science professor at Pace University in New York.

"It's a very fast-moving field," Dwyer said. "It would be very surprising to me if there isn't another very big idea out there."

Could it be something like Chaggle?

To be certain, the company's founders stop well short of such bold predictions.

"I don't see Chaggle being a replacement for any of the social media outlets out there," said Smith, a Mississippi native who got a master's degree in business administration from Washington University in 2007.

The idea for Chaggle emerged from a fairly simple question posed by Smith and Stephenson, both network engineers: When surfing the Net, why can't you chat with the other people visiting the same sites?

The network makes it possible through a Web browser plug-in - available now for Internet Explorer, with others to follow soon - that opens a communication channel for users.

Go to ESPN.com and you can talk with other sports fans about the day's news. Interested in a new drill? Go to Sears.com and ask other shoppers for guidance. Or you can shop online with friends, chatting while looking at the same merchandise.

Chaggle - derived from the phrase "gaggle of chatters" - features buddy lists and, in the spirit of Twitter, limits posts to 300 characters.

"Facebook is great for people you know," Smith said. "What Chaggle is for is to run into people at websites you are interested in."

Now, the company just has to figure out how to get users interested in Chaggle.

Initially, the founders plan to target university students. And with limited funding - they have no outside investors - they'll rely heavily on word-of-mouth and viral marketing. Such is life for many of these social networks. Sometimes their good ideas wither and die before they ever have a chance to prove themselves to investors and users.

In the past year alone, several networks have been forced out of business. They include Pownce, a microblogging site similar to Twitter; Meetro, a messenger service that let users know about the location of other users; and SixDegrees, which tracked users' relationships and connections. And recently, the baby boomer-oriented TeeBeeDee told users that financial problems will force it to close next week.

The problem for many sites is that they never really figure out how to reach their target audience. Or even worse, they never figure out who's in their audience. Consider again everyone's favorite success story, Facebook. The site used by millions of networkers from all walks of life started out targeting students on Ivy League college campuses and grew, slowly at first, from there.

"You have to start somewhere. Trying to market to everyone is just not going to be successful way to start," said Benjamin Weisman, digital director and lead strategist for iris-New York, a marketing firm.

It's a strategy that's worked fairly well for GirlsAskGuys, a social network run out of a house in University City.

Launched in late 2007, the relationship-advice site gets about 600,000 unique visitors each month, billing itself as the place to go to hear opinions from both sexes.

But like just about every social network in existence, this one struggles with the same question: How do you make money off all those users?

"It's something of a nightmare, to be honest with you," said Jen Heil, one of the owners. "Content is free and nobody wants to pay for it."

They're exploring a few options to increase revenue, including mining the site's question and answer forum for data that could be sold to marketers. They're also looking at expanding the overall concept to other niches, including pets and parenting.

The site, which employs a handful of full- and part-time workers, does actually make money. Sort of.

"If we actually had an office, then there is no way we'd be profitable at this point," Heil said.

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Top Social Networks

Rankings are based on the number of unique visitors.

Network May 2009 Change*

Facebook 75.4 million +190%

MySpace 54.9 million -10%

Twitter 18.2 million +1,448%

Classmates 16.4 million +14%

LinkedIn 12.6 million +64%

Source: Nielsen

* Year over year

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GirlsAskGuys.com

Based - University City

Launched - December 2007

What it is - GirlsAskGuys is a relationship-oriented social network that seeks to provide users with advice from both sexes. Users tend to be younger, in the 16-24 age range. The site's owners say they receive around 600,000 unique visitors each month.

Chaggle.com

Based - St. Louis

Launched - May 2009

What it is - Chaggle is a recently launched social network that lets users communicate with each other while surfing the Web. Among other things, the service is billed as a way to connect with others who share similar interests.

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