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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 10, Dated Mar 15, 2008

Smallville In Cyberspace

It’s a small world at the top: social networking site aSmallWorld tries exclusivity to carve a niche—and sees advertisers as partners, not parasites

“Bitter yearning, once satisfied, becomes wistful snobbery,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre of his contemporary Albert Camus, against whom he harbored personal jealousies. In few places in the virtual world does this so adage so amusingly (and perhaps addictively) come alive as social networking site aSmallWorld.net—aSW for those in the know.

Open source, meet the virtual velvet rope. Call it a cyber social club for jet-set web-surfers, the sort who might post the question, how do I find a nanny with the right papers in Dubai? Or, how do I insure a Ferrari in Germany?

Glamorous or grotesque? Pompous or pragmatic? Reviewers have generally fallen into two camps, either lauding or lampooning the concept. The latter is tempting.

Discussions on the site’s popular Forum are both pretentious and obtuse. A tuxedoed member from Sweden enquires about the best music for next week’s marathon, “to stack [his] iPod to get the adrenaline going”. A Londoner, strumming guitar in his profile, recommends Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti as “superb running music”. A third chimes in, lamenting, “music listeners during sporting events are usually incorrigible,” but just in case, recommends “epic soundtracks like Gladiator”.

In these days when ‘wisdom of crowds,’ ‘collaborative engineering’ and ‘long tail’ compose the lifeblood of flourishing websites like Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia and Amazon, it would seem rather counterintuitive to go against all that. Yet the buzz around aSW is in its air of exclusivity. The privilege of inviting friends has been bestowed upon a mere 15 per cent of members.

And what friends you might have, if only you could get in. Film director Quentin Tarantino, supermodel Naomi Campbell and socialite Paris Hilton log in, as does Ivanka Trump. In India, profiles of well-heeled expat executives are found alongside those of industrialists like Samir Modi of Modi Enterprises (who has ten friends) and hoteliers like Vikram Oberoi (who has three). Several Bollywood producers appear also to have made the cut.

Delhi-based Jaisal Singh, an hotelier with a fondness for polo, tells Express India that he uses the Forum “for getting information on the best hotels and art shows across the world, and even about a solicitor. It’s easier to trust suggestions from aSmallWorld members since they are likely to have a similar taste.”

The wizard behind the Oz of aSW is Erik Wachtmeister, erstwhile investment banker and son of a former Swedish ambassador to the US. Mr Wachtmeister, who has styled himself as a sort of emissary to the global glitterati, describes to Harpers Bazaar the “typical member”: a “28 to 35 year old aristocrat living in a major European city, with a masters degree, and a life on the fast track.”

From just 150 members in since its launch four years ago, the site has grown to 3 lakh, and from just over 200 members with part or full-time residence in India last June, that number has swelled to more than 750 today. One is left wondering just how much royalty the Old World has yet on offer.

Not beholden to such boring technicalities, and with backing by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Mr Wachtmeister hopes to reach half a million to a million members in two to four years’ time. His mission, he says is to bring together the “most interesting people on the planet with the most interesting information on the planet”.

For advertisers, rich will do. And it is here that he might well have struck gold. Luxury goods manufacturers who eschew Facebook or MySpace have taken notice of aSW and its pledge of impressions without loss of brand cache. Cofounder Louise Wachtmeister, interviewed by phone from London, says she is careful to only allow “brands that members find interesting to discover”.

Even so, there is an inherent tension between tight-knit and high-growth. For the truly wealthy, the ultimate luxury is time. Those whose social calendars are already heaving are probably unlikely to spend much time searching out free wine tastings with new cyber chums. The danger here for aSW and sites like it, as any experienced nightclub owner will tell you, is the balancing act: the average attention span of the celebrities the site parades as members is unremarkable except in its brevity. Those who lurk about idolizing them are similarly fickle. So to keep up with, say, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, the Wachtmeisters must make their domain not just novel, but ultimately useful.

A recent list of other specific interest social networks gaining steam includes YogaMates.com, a social network for physicians, and a dating site for the overweight. Will its elaborate defenses allow aSmallWorld to withstand the onslaught from this eclectic band of barbarians multiplying at the gates?

From the steppes of aSmallWorld, the world is flat, and safe for self-worship. The Wachtmeisters are banking on the assumption that the grass is not greener down below.


From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 10, Dated Mar 15, 2008

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