| NEW YORK
NEW YORK A San Francisco native who loves the beach, parks, running and dancing, Marco has easily made connections over the Internet, racking up 5,200 on his profile. Not bad for a 4-year-old Miniature Schnauzer.
Marco is just one of thousands of dogs with a Web profile on Dogster.com, an online community featuring pet photos posted by owners along with pooch videos, diaries and travel tips.
Dogs not your thing? Cat people can go to Catster.com; car lovers can put their ride on Boompa.com, and there's Sneakerplay.com for those who are crazy about ... well, sneakers. Obsessed with your bike or motorcycle? Give them a profile on Velospace.org or Motortopia.com.
These are just some of the sites dubbed "passion-centric" or "object-oriented" communities, a niche alternative to the most popular social sites like Facebook.com or MySpace.com, which draw a wide audience with millions of students and young professionals.
"These are about adults sharing about what they are passionate about in a safe, fun, informative environment," said Ted Rheingold, 37, who founded Dogster and its sister site, Catster.
"You're not sharing names, or your photo. Nobody is saying your music is stupid," he added.
Whereas Facebook or MySpace profiles would feature a person -- say, John Smith -- passion-oriented communities focus on an object or area of interest. It could be a bike, a car, a pet or anything else that may be the center of your world.
"The best thing about this is you're able to connect with people from all over the world who are into the same thing," said Robleh Jama, 25, co-founder of Sneakerplay.
"You're able to build a meaningful relationship and friendship over something like shoes," he said.
Jama started Sneakerplay last year, using an invitation-only system and building a community around pictures of sneakers -- some trashy, some classic, some rare, and some just plain common.
"I've always been big into sneakers, into basketball," Jama said. "One day I was talking to a buddy and I threw out the idea that wouldn't it be cool to create a site where we could dial up sneakers and see what's out there. A community to show off our kicks, show off our personalities."
About 11,000 members are now part of the community, which has galleries, contests, a blog and a forum where people can talk about fashion, shopping, basketball or anything else. Last year, a gift exchange cropped up during the holidays.
But in the end, Jama says, it's about the sneakers.
"In the real world, that's how we usually connect with people. Over our interests -- basketball, sneaker shopping," he said.
"A COMMON PASSION"
Law student Greg Smith, 25, founded Velospace in the winter of 2005 in an effort to connect with other bicycle lovers. Now it has about 5,000 members, along with "profiles" of bikes ranging from the rare and classic to the very basic.
"When it's winter in Chicago, it's really hard to ride your bike," Smith said. "So I wanted to be able to look at bikes in the middle of winter, but none of the sites that were out there really did a good job of bringing interesting bikes together so people could see them."
While Velospace and other passion-centric sites are not as vast as MySpace or Facebook, their smaller size can be an advantage when you're trying to meet people. You know immediately that you have something in common.
"It's a testament to how much people get into bikes and love their bikes," says Smith. "There are thousands of other people like me, who want to share their excitement and this is a place for that."
When it comes to meeting people, these sites often feel more secure than communities where you need to post a photo and personal information, users said. After all, on Velospace you're listing your bike's vitals, not your own.
Dogster's Rheingold says he goes to great lengths to make the site feel safe for pet owners. "We try to do lots of things to discourage disclosing too much information about yourself inadvertently."
The payoff is that people who are very different and may never connect in everyday life will often bond over a shared interest like German Shepherds or Poodles.
"I've seen so many examples of the head of IT in New York talking with a woman living in rural Alaska about organic dog food," Rheingold says. "If they were in person, they would never talk. But in this environment, all that matters is their common passion."