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Wireless firms move into social networking

Providers hope to profit from MySpace-like service but it's also sparking fears for safety of young users

You were warned not to talk to strangers, but some mobile phone companies are hoping you'll pay extra to do just that.

Several US wireless companies, including Cingular Wireless, Amp'd Mobile Inc., and Alltel Corp., jumped on the ''social networking" bandwagon this week, offering software for their handsets that connects strangers to each other in much the same way as websites like MySpace.com. A mobile version of MySpace will be available to customers of Helio LLC, an upstart wireless carrier, this spring, and both Sprint and Boost Mobile, a prepaid wireless firm, already are running similar software.

The experiment, if successful, could be another way for the wireless industry to shift its focus from voice revenue to data as margins on talk-minute plans have thinned. Carriers hope it will be popular among young people already comfortable with sharing personal information with people they don't know and that users will be willing to pay to do so on their mobile phones.

But if social networking is compelling for mobile companies, it might also carry expanded perils for young users. Some websites likeMySpace, founded in 2004 and bought by entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch for $580 million in July, have been blamed for attracting pedophiles and bullies and for allowing underage members to post revealing photos and personal information on their profiles without their parents' knowledge.

Some fear the appearance of social networking on mobile phones could allow teens more chances to participate in dubious behavior.

''This is another situation where parents need to stay current with the technology," said Anna Weselak, president, of the National PTA. ''It's much easier to go to sites when they have their own cellphone when parents aren't around."

Social networking sites aren't new. Early ones like Friendster let users exchange information with people of common interests in the late 1990s, and the same premise was responsible for the success of America Online in loftier times. They exploded last year as sites like MySpace gave users almost carte blanche to promote themselves, their interests, and even businesses or political causes online for free and as users grew more savvy about how to use those tools.

That free-for-all approach, though, has been criticized for encouraging criminal activity. This week, two men were charged with usingMySpace to arrange meetings with underage Connecticut girls. In Fontana, Calif., a man was arrested after arranging a meeting through the site with what he thought was a 15-year-old girl, but which was actually two teenage boys posing as a girl as a prank on their friend.

MySpace has stringent safety procedures in place, said spokeswoman Dani Dudeck. A third of its 270 workers monitor photos and content posted to the site. If material is deemed inappropriate, it could lead to the removal of the material, suspension of the user who posted it, or alerting law enforcement, she said.

Still, anyone at least 14 years old can use the site and despite more stringent limits on users under 16, members have control over who can contact them.

With its 60 million users worldwide, MySpace even has its own record label, an outgrowth of the many independent artists who were already using it as a marketing tool. But perhaps its most key feature in the online world -- it's free to use -- is a fundamental difference from what wireless carriers have in mind: persuading users to pay.

''We think mobile is going to be bigger than online because you have the ubiquity factor. Phones are with you all the time," said Frederick Ghahramani, director of AirG Inc., a Vancouver company that built the social networking software being run by several US carriers (MySpace is not one of them). Ghahramani said his 6-year-old company raked in seven-figure profits last year. He would not discuss specific figures, but said fees to use the services, which are set by the wireless companies running his software, range from 50 cents daily to $3.99 per month.

More than 7.5 million people worldwide use it to browse each other's profiles and hold text conversations sight unseen, he said. An upgrade available this year will let users actually talk to each other by pushing a button, instead of exchanging numbers.

Helio, the new carrier in a deal with MySpace, won't charge a separate fee for accessing that site, but to get to it, its subscribers will pay extra data fees, said Julie Cordua, a spokeswoman.

Boost charges customers 50 cents a day to use its service, called ''Hookt." Fridays are free.

Melissa Maldonado, a 22-year-old florist from Allentown, Pa., says she loves the service, which she uses about an hour a day to chat with friends and search for people living in her town.

''Sometimes when you're bored, you just don't feel like talking, so you use this to chat. I think it's worth it," said Maldonado, who goes by the screen name ''prcutiepie." Her father, she says, is issuing constant warnings about who or what she might encounter through the phone.

''All he hears is all the bad things. I just try to explain to him that as long as I'm being safe it's OK. He's just being a dad."

Keith Reed can be reached at reed@globe.com. WHAT FEATURES WOULD YOU ADD TO YOUR MOBILE PHONE?

Share your future cellphone fantasies at boston.com/business

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