Social networking hype 2.0

TechCrunch 50: Startups parody themselves unintentionally with dubious pitches

Clever social networking-related startups with obscure taglines -- including Causecast ("Change your world, and the world will change"), Qik ("See what happens"), and Joongel ("Internet the easy way -- we have chocolate") -- line the showroom of TechCrunch50 in San Francisco. If you want to find out what these companies do, you'll have to ask the one of the beautiful people manning the tables.

Or perhaps she'll slyly touch your arm to get your attention, like Noa Wolfson of Delver ("Search your world") did to me. "You can search all your profiles on different social networking sites," she says. Welcome to the world of social networking, where getting noticed and becoming a star is the name of the game, online or off, and especially here in the afternoon on the last day of TechCrunch50.

Like a creepy twist on American Idol, which has become TechCrunch's familiar format, five vertical social networking startups stepped up to the podium and gave their best business pitch in front of four judges.

One was a subscription-based Web site, called Birdpost, that lets bird enthusiasts report sightings on a satellite map, share pictures, get bird information, and create a list of birds seen over a lifetime. Judges remained skeptical of Birdpost's money-making future.

A pitchwoman from Closet Couture showed judges how she picked out her outfit for tonight's bash. Closet Couture lets users create a profile, mix and match clothes by dragging and dropping images, and receive expert style advice. She vigorously defended Closet Couture against judges' concerns about potential copyright infringement, demand for fashion services in a weak economy, and so on.

Next, Footnote offers a way for people to create a genealogy using historical documents, images, and social networking. Footnote also lets people post memorials and images of deceased friends and family. One judge chimed, "I don't think anyone wants to be remembered as a footnote."

Former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy streamed in over the Internet to pitch Causecast, a Web site that encourages people to donate to good causes. Judges cheered the effort. After all, no one wants to look heartless.

Last, Shattered Reality Interactive lets game developers collaborate on pieces of an online game -- at least, I think so. The pitchman with rapid-fire speech had to cool his heels as his presentation slides went dark. One judge was left in the dark, too, about what the company does.

And therein lies the biggest challenge facing vertical social networking sites: Rising from obscurity. Ironically, obscurity is the same challenge vertical e-markets and dot-coms faced during the Web 1.0 days. In fact, I caught myself waiting for Pets.com's sock puppet to make an appearance.

By the way, TechCrunch judges don't pick a winner right after the presentations because, of course, everyone wins for getting some air time.

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