Summary:

When Britain’s teenagers aren’t rioting, they’re spending their time ogling each other on a hot website that’s just scored significant investment from a Canadian web mogul. But can Snog.com turn itself into something useful — or will it fade into obscurity?

Snog.com

There is a parlor game known politely in Britain as “snog, marry, avoid”. You may well be more familiar with another variation that’s less family friendly. In it, players are challenged to choose to rank three prospective love interests: choosing which one’s sexiest, which one’s most eligible and which one is plain disgusting.

The game has been around for a long time, but it’s gained more traction in recent years thanks to a popular (and risible) BBC TV series that has turned a silly idea into a dating dictum.

Now a new website Snog.com is erupting in Britain by taking on the idea in a connected way. The site describes itself as “the new and addictive way to meet people”: users log on, scan the pictures of people and rate whether they think they’re attractive, partnership material or simply uninteresting. There are more social networking elements too, since users can follow people they like, write each other public notes or send private messages.

It’s gained a lot of traction, mainly with teenagers. In fact, most of the users (of which there appear to be many) are young — very young: the lowest official age on the site is 13, while the average user seemed to be around 16-18. For the most part they seem to use the service as a vast chatroom.

Snog.comBritish teens have a habit of switching on early to social networks: it’s part of what drives London to be one of the centers of worldwide online activity, what helped Facebook’s early spread outside the U.S. and what led Bebo to become such a big deal so rapidly.

But if Snog sounds dumb, then that’s because in many ways it is. Imagine OK Cupid for people who are probably too young to be dating at all; or imagine one of those teen phone chat lines you often see advertised late at night. It’s all that, with a twist. Public interaction seems to get beyond the bare minimum of rating, making it more like a virtual quiz than a social network.

Still, doesn’t stop the site’s founders — a pair of British university graduates, Will Peirce and Johnny Teeling — from dreaming big. They have built up Snog in the last few months to the point where it’s garnered a lot of activity and some broader attention. And in an interview with local media in Yorkshire, the 22 year olds are heralded as creators of “the next Facebook”. Quite what that means beyond the soundbites is unclear, but it’s obvious that the site is getting plenty of attention from its audience.

“It’s a totally different way for teens to meet,” Peirce said. “This is about meeting people, all about finding someone new. It’s all about social discovery.”

Of course, whenever somebody tells you a web service is “totally different”, the alarm bells should ring. After all, Snog is actually pretty familiar — it’s essentially just an updated version Hot or Not, the face rating site that became an early viral success after it launched in 2000.

That site also boasted a pair of college grad founders and looked like a flash in the pan. But it was a dumb idea that managed to turn itself into something resembling a business: Hot or Not eventually moving into more structured dating introductions and gossip, before selling for $20 million to the owners of the notorious extra-marital affairs service Ashley Madison.

Kevin Ham on cover of Business 2.0Perhaps it’s this path that drew the interest of Toronto Vancouver-based investor Kevin Ham to invest what he describes as a “six figure sum” in Snog. Ham, a medical doctor and devout Christian, has a strange story of his own. His track record centers on being one of the world’s top domain traders — building a portfolio of domains and typosquats that was not pretty — he purchased newyorktimes.cm, for example, and redirected it to advertising pages that made him cash for each view — but was valuable: his empire was estimated by Business 2.0 in 2007 to produce $70 million each year in revenues.

So, the site has a lot of users and traffic (more than a million pageviews a day over the last six months) and. But if it wants to avoid being just a brief flash in the pan, it will have to deal with some significant problems — the age of its user base, for example, is going to be a difficult issue to get past.

In all likelihood, Snog will be like most teenage obsessions — falling off the radar as quickly as it came into view. But maybe, just maybe, there’s something in it. After all, Hot or Not was a dumb idea that managed to turn into something relatively successful. And Mark Zuckerberg started out building something called Facemash, a clone that laid the foundation for the first version of the Face Book.

Who knows what could happen? Right now, after all, most people are probably glad to see anything that keeps British teenagers occupied long enough to prevent them from rioting and looting their way across the nation’s cities.

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