After watching smaller players grow fat on the social-networking gravy train, Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) is hoping to take a ride of its own. Project head Will Aldrich announced the beta launch of the Yahoo! Mash service Friday.

This isn't the first time that Yahoo! has tried to give social networking a shot. Heard of Yahoo! 360? No? Exactly. This is a brand-new attempt by the Web's leading traffic magnet to make waves in a niche dominated by Facebook and News Corp.'s (NYSE:NWS) MySpace. Other sites like Bebo and Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Orkut may not be hot brands stateside, but they're thriving in select overseas markets.

Diving in late to this crowded pool won't be easy for Mash. However, there's a bit of viral secret sauce in Yahoo!'s tardy foray. According to Aldrich's announcement, three things that should set the service apart.

  1. You can make starter profiles for your friends. "First round's on me," basically.
  2. You can leave your profile open to contributions by trusted friends.
  3. You can customize your -- or your friend's -- profile with modules from a growing gallery of apps.

In other words, there will be a little peer pressure involved. Once a friend begins a starter profile for you, you'll have an incentive to go in and flesh it out. The ability to have "trusted friends" update the profile page also reduces the number of mostly dormant profile pages that plague many other social networks.

Will that be enough to compensate for Mash's unfashionably late arrival? That's just one of the service's challenges. Since Yahoo! doesn't own -- it's the property of Swiss financial services juggernaut UBS AG (NYSE:UBS) -- Mash will also have to make do as a subdomain of its parent site.

Still, it's great to see Yahoo! trying to push the envelope, now that it's under public scrutiny. The company settled for an internal hire -- albeit in the person of co-founder Jerry Yang -- when it nudged CEO Terry Semel out the door three months ago.

Yahoo! has succeeded with Web 2.0 hubs like its Flickr photo-sharing site, the social-bookmarking site, and its Yahoo! Answers Q&A service. Success for Mash wouldn't be unprecedented. If all goes well, it may become part of a collection of sticky Web 2.0 sites that ultimately awakens this sleeping giant from its fiscal slumber. If Rip Van Winkle eventually woke up, Yahoo! can, too.

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