Online social networking websites saw their ranks swell and values soar this year as everyone from moody teenagers and mellow music lovers to mate-seeking seniors joined online communities. Google's freshly released "Zeitgeist 2007" reveals that seven out of the 10 hottest topics which triggered Internet queries during the year involved social networking.
A Top Ten list compiled by the world's most-used search engine includes British website Badoo, Spanish-language Hi5, and US-based Facebook.
Video-sharing websites YouTube and Dailymotion are on the list, along with the Club Penguin online role playing game where children pretending to be the flightless birds "waddle about and play" together.
Virtual world Second Life, where people represented by animated proxies interact in digitized fantasy settings, is the final social networking property in the Zeitgeist Top Ten.
The world has only seen "the tip of the iceberg" when it comes to online social networking, says MySpace vice president of business development Amit Kapur.
"It is a natural step in the evolution of the Web," Kapur told AFP.
"The Web is getting more personal. I think you are going to see much more of that happen on every website across the Web."
MySpace aspires to become people's homes on the Internet, with profile pages serving as online addresses as well as springboards to online music, video, news and other content conducive to their tastes and interests.
"It is a next-generation portal," Kapur said.
Industry statistics show Facebook membership more than doubled in the past year to about 55 million, while reigning champion MySpace grew 30 percent to top 110 million.
One in every four US residents uses MySpace, while in Britain it is as common to have a profile page on the website as it is to own a dog.
"We are very social animals and this allows us to ramp it up to a whole other order of magnitude," says professor Jeremy Bailenson, who heads a Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University in Northern California.
A strong appeal of online role-playing games and virtual worlds is that they free people to "interact as their ideal self and not their real self," according to Bailenson.
"You can be whatever age you want -- 20 forever -- dress any way you want, be any gender you want, and be socializing with zillions of people at once all the time," Bailenson told AFP. His lab has created 3-dimensional digitized models customized with people's facial expressions and mannerisms.
"You can make a digital version of you that is animated so your grandkids' grandkids could put on a helmet and you can read them a story from the grave," Bailenson said, adding virtual communities offer a sense of immortality.
"People love virtual community."
Interest in online communities surged in 2007 as the gregarious nature of humans merged with increasingly available high-speed Internet and affordable computing hardware, according to Bailenson.
"It has reached a critical mass," Bailenson said. "It is not just the geeks doing it. It is my mom." California-based social networking website BOOMj just launched as an online community for Baby Boomers, the first of which turned 65 years old this year.
"Boomers grew up meeting people through mutual friends, which a lot of times meant it was the bartender," said BOOMj spokesman Jim Welch, himself a "boomer."
"Now you have Boomers re-entering the single world, widowed or divorce, and on new-relationship terrain they haven't set foot on in many years. As they re-enter the single world they reach out to the Internet."
Younger generations are much more comfortable with the Internet, which has woven ever more tightly into their lifestyles.
"It won't replace face to face interaction," Bailenson said.
"It is another way of thinking about maintaining social relationships. It is here and it is not going anywhere." Forrester Research senior analyst Jeremiah Owyang said the social networking rage is happening "where ever there is high-speed Internet."
Owyang said membership at the website Cyworld includes 85 percent of South Korea's Internet users. A major company in that country gave employees annual bonuses in the form Cyworld currency.
Online communities and virtual worlds are forums for commerce, advertising and business meetings, said Owyang.
MySpace's Kapur says social networking will become increasingly global and mobile as the use of Internet-linked handheld devices becomes ubiquitous.
The meteoric rise in popularity of social networking websites is driving up their values in the minds of investors as the firms grapple with how to cash in on membership bases.
Microsoft recently paid 240 million dollars for a 1.6 percent stake in Facebook and Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing paid 60 million dollars for a piece of the San Francisco company.
The investments give three-year-old Facebook a theoretical value of 15 billion dollars. News Corp-owned MySpace wouldn't disclose its value, saying only it has about triple the membership and activity of Facebook.