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Networking site touts 'tiered' privacy

Multiply finds more funding, continues to attract users wanting more control over social-networking environment.

Multiply, a social-networking site that allows its members multiple tiers of privacy, recently received $6 million in new funding and launched a version of its service in Japan.

The bulk of the funding came from Transcosmos Investments & Business Developments, a Japanese marketing management company that helped Multiply launch in Japan in June. Transcosmos supplied $5 million and Multiply's founders put up $1 million.

The funding will help the network, which has 3 million members in the U.S., establish an international presence, said Michael Gersh, co-founder of Multiply and its vice president of sales and marketing. "We happened to find a really good partner that's willing to go further."

"When users bring their own friends online, the friendships are stronger. There's more loyalty to that."
--Charlene Li, principal analyst, Forrester Research

Gersh said that Multiply's ability to offer degrees of privacy--depending on the nature of the communications involved--is among its greatest strengths.

"From the beginning, one of the things that differentiated us from other sites is our focus on someone's true personal network," he said, adding that Multiply is intended as an online imitation of real life in the sense that users are provided tools to help them control access to their data on the network.

Each time a Multiply user invites someone to join the network, the invitee can be assigned to one of three basic categories: "Friends," "Family" or "Professional Contact."

The user then assigns the invitee to one of about 35 different subcategories, ranging from distant relative to neighbor to sorority sister to life partner.

This information helps the site, which employs a unique search algorithm, to produce search results that coincide more precisely with the relationships users have with people in their network.

"Based on the various factors we know, we can determine how close two users are socially, if they have mutual friends, family, if they communicate frequently," Gersh said. "That proximity index is used alongside keyword relevancy for searches."

For instance, if a user types "Italy" in the search field, Multiply's list of relevant results is topped by people who are socially closest to the user.

Deciding who sees what
Users can also limit access to their Multiply database. If users feel more comfortable allowing only family members access to their baby pictures, for example, they can impose restrictions on that access when publishing the pictures. They can also ensure that superiors at work don't see the blog they posted venting frustration about their career.

Charlene Li, principal analyst at Forrester Research, said that privacy and control have become increasingly important to network users.

"The one key thing about networking sites like MySpace is it's more about meeting new people, whereas our research shows that people increasingly want to segment things a bit more, they want to decide which friends see what," she said. "In that sense, they want a network that will take it to the next level. They want a lot of control."

Li said that over the past few years, online networkers have discovered that sharing family photos with close acquaintances via their network page also means sharing them with thousands if not millions of strangers.

Furthermore, she said, the relationships in smaller, specialized networks such as Multiply tend to be more substantial and long-lasting.

"When users bring their own friends online, the friendships are stronger. There's more loyalty to that," she said. "So if a network can focus on that, what users can do with their friends and they have the intimacy and privacy that they can't have with MySpace, they're going to have a successful network."

Multiply, which launched its beta site in the U.S. in April 2004, was not ready to disclose the number of users on its Japanese site.

"We haven't started promoting it yet," Gersh said. "We wanted to eliminate any kinks."

As for the look and functionality of the Japanese site, Gersh said it is primarily the same site as the U.S. version.

He said the company and its partner were pleased with the success of their network in the U.S. and he saw no reason to alter the basic formula for overseas marketability.

"The primary difference is the language translation," he said. "As we get into more aggressive marketing, there might be some cultural differences that we work into it a little later."