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ICQ gets 'friendlier' with new service

AOL's popular instant-messaging service adds Friendster-like social networking as a new feature to boost subscriptions.

America Online's ICQ has joined the social-networking craze.

On Thursday, the popular instant-messaging service added a social-networking element to its service that enables people to meet and chat with their friends' friends. The company hopes that the new service will provide users with a more secure way of meeting people in the ICQ community and will increase registration.

ICQ Universe combines the standard features of ICQ instant messaging, with a social-networking twist. ICQ's established IM business already serves more than 8 million active daily members and has 175 million registered users worldwide.

The purpose of ICQ Universe is to enable members of ICQ's community to meet new people in a more secure and safe way, the company said. Customers are already able to browse the extensive directory, but ICQ Universe allows them to check out people whom their friends and colleagues already know. It essentially lets members view their friends' buddy lists and examine the relationships and profiles of these new individuals before contacting them.

"It's a nice, safe way to meet people and instant message them, because you already know who is connected to who," said Yael Givon, director of marketing at ICQ.

Membership in the ICQ Universe is "by invitation only." Before someone from an existing buddy list can be added to the community, he or she must sign up to be an ICQ Universe member. People who wish to join the ICQ Universe but haven't been invited by a friend can register as "guest users" and join in the service's virtual "lobby." There, they can browse member profiles and quickly submit a request to join the ICQ Universe. While in the lobby, guest users also can chat with other guest users as well as established universe members and find volunteer "recruiters" to invite them to join the ICQ universe.

Once invited to join ICQ Universe, new members can invite additional members to join and recruit new friends, as they like. The service is free and is based on the same advertising-driven business model the ICQ instant-messaging service has.

ICQ is jumping on a bandwagon well under way. Social-networking sites dedicated to making connections between people based on recommendations from friends have become popular during the past year. Friendster was one of the first such sites to launch. Since then, several others have entered the market. ICQ claims to be the first to incorporate IM.

InterActiveCorp has added social networking to Evite, its invitation service, and to Match.com, its online dating service. Earlier this week, InterActiveCorp announced the acquisition of ZeroDegrees, an online business-networking company with roughly 220,000 members. Even search engine site Google has launched a networking site aimed at creating virtual social clubs.

"The beauty of this is that it isn't a stand-alone service," Givon said. "The point of the project is that it expands users' personal contact lists and public communities, and you can instant message right away, which makes it more dynamic than the other services."