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Geni's approach to social networking

With the success of MySpace, there has been enormous activity in the startup world focusing on social networks around a particular niche, or purpose. In the case of Geni.com, which launched mid-January, the site attracts anyone interested in genealogy – the study of ancestry or family histories. It is a social network that first starts with one family tree, and then branches out from there. You can imagine that as family trees get filled out, you'll be able to see who your 10th-degree cousin is. You might also learn that your best friend is related by having the same great, great, great, great grandmother.

The viral nature of this site is pretty obvious and compelling. Once someone fills in their family tree, like I did recently, they know exactly what they have to do next. They have to prompt others – parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, in-laws – to fill in their family profiles. To this end, the value proposition seems far greater than other social netwok sites that are trying to get people to post their thoughts, photos and videos on their own personal pages and get their friends or family to connect with them. The problem for those sites are 1) some family members/friends aren't interested in social networks, or they're already part of one 2) there are too many other social networks trying to position themselves as neighborhood or family/close friend networks, such as TypePad's Vox and Friendster, and therefore, it's hard to choose which one to be part of.

Geni.com is interesting because it's a site that organizes your family tree. That's a value-add that other social networks don't provide.

To be sure, Geni.com - though its approach is different -- is actually trying to do the same thing as the other sites. It's trying to connect people. And, on the site, a person can upload their photos, and create profiles, such as favorite cuisines, school and professional history. There's even a place where someone can message me on my Geni.com profile. These are requisite features of social network sites. Now, what I haven't seen is a place to blog. But I imagine it's only a matter of time before this feature is incorporated into Geni.com. After all, once you get your family tree up and running, you'll likely want to communicate with them through stories. Additionally, if people can blog, that means they'll likely stay on the site longer, create content, and drive pageviews. And, since Geni.com is going to be mainly advertising supported, I'd imagine the company will want as many features that drive pageviews.

Now, while I really thinking the viral nature is compelling, it will take a lot of encouragement to get others to respond. For instance, since I pinged my family (nearing two weeks now) to upload their information – their spouse, children, in-laws, etc. – they had yet to fill in any information. But no matter, I’m sure in time they will. It’s a matter of changing their behavior and understanding how easy a family tree can be organized if they just added their 2 cents of knowledge.

Former PayPal COO David Sacks, who also produced “Thank you for Smoking,” based on the popular book (and one of my favorites), founded Geni.com in mid-2006. In this video, he gives his pitch about why he started it and what his vision is.

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