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Tech Lab

Social supplements

Tools and apps let users expand on their online networks by identifying shared interests, and helping them make friends

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / March 22, 2012
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We all know what happens when you try to beat Facebook at the social network game. You get Google Plus - welldesigned, innovative, and utterly lifeless.

We don’t need a substitute for Facebook. What we need are online social tools to supplement the social media colossus, cool little services that let you divvy up your friends into subcommittees based on shared tastes and interests. Social mini-networks can help us keep track of our current acquaintances and make new ones; guide us as we shop for items both mundane and exotic; or give us a roomful of TV-watching buddies even when there’s nobody home.

I’m especially partial to Path, a social journal that’s almost a mini-Facebook. Fans of luxury goods will want to check out TheFancy.com, a social shopping service stocked with eye candy you can buy. Social media apps like GetGlue hook you up with fellow fans of TV shows, movies, and books. Then there are the local social apps - programs like Banjo, Localmind, and Glancee, to connect you to like-minded people within walking distance.

Let’s start with Path, an app that runs on Apple Inc.’s iPhone or iPad, or on devices running Google Inc.’s Android operating system. It helps you keep track of everything you do with pictures, text, and sound, and lets you share the experience not only with Path users, but if you like, with Facebook friends or Twitter followers.

The smart user interface is far simpler than a Facebook app. In about a minute, you can shoot a photo, write a little text with a fingertip or the phone’s speech-recognition software, tag it with your exact location, and post the results online.

Path got in hot water earlier this year because the company’s iPhone app automatically copied all the names and addresses stored on a user’s phone, and sent the data to Path’s servers. The company has since apologized and deleted the stored data. It now asks for permission before copying your address book. I very much hope it is leveling with us, as I would hate to stop using this very attractive app.

You have probably heard of Pinterest, the social photo site where people share their favorite pictures of neat stuff. It’s nice to look at, but not all that useful. Fancy, on the other hand, aims to cash in on the concept by serving up exquisite images of items from well-known retailers like Victoria’s Secret, Amazon.com, or even Walmart, and letting you buy them with a click. There’s a lot of high-end, out-of-my-league merchandise there, but I can dream, and share my fantasies with friends.

Once you sign up at TheFancy.com, it sends invites to Facebook friends with similar tastes in clothing, shoes, accessories, or cars. Fancy is accessible via PC or through mobile apps for Apple or Android devices.

There’s a horde of services that can put you in touch with fans of your favorite TV shows. GetGlue goes a step further, by offering forums for discussing books, movies, music, and video games. Users “check in’’ to announce their interest in, say, the TV series “Mad Men’’ or “The Hunger Games’’ movie, and are instantly hooked up with fellow viewers. You can post your GetGlue activity automatically to Facebook, and also recruit like-minded friends to sign up.

A bunch of services try to break down the wall between the Net and the real world. Apps like Banjo and Glancee use the location service in users’ smartphones to figure out where they are, then relay that information to other users within a few miles. You can track down friends from Facebook or Twitter, or send icebreaker messages to users you have never met before.

My favorite social location app, Localmind, serves up the accumulated wisdom of your neighbors. Users can check in to restaurants, supermarkets, bookstores, or bars, using Facebook Places or the popular Foursquare location check-in app. When you launch Localmind, you will see a map with pins representing all nearby venues where other Localmind users have checked in. You can instantly shoot them questions: How long does it take to get a table? Do they serve imported beer?

Sharing such valuable information is what friends are for; and strangers, too, if they are using the right apps.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Watha.

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