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Online TV sites with social features: Joost, CBS, TV.com, and Hulu

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Like it or not, online video streaming is changing. In an effort to attract more viewers, Hulu, Joost, TV.com, and other online video destinations are adding social networking features to their respective sites. But are these features worth checking out or will they simply bombard your viewing experience with chat widgets and emoticons? We spent some time on each of our favorite sites to find out.

Joost
Of all the sites we looked at, Joost offers the most social networking options, letting you blast every move you make on the site to all of your friends. Joost members can create a profile page where you can display your photos, your current mood, your Joost friends, your favorite videos, and more. In addition to making Joost friends, members can also create and join groups such as the "Fans of Weeds" group or the "We wish Joost had Hulu's content" group. Every action you make on the site is detailed on your JoostFeed, which you can then post onto other sites like Facebook. (The content that is cross-posted onto your Facebook page depends on the privacy settings of your Joost profile.) However, despite all of its networking features, members cannot watch shows together in real time. Instead you can only "shout" at videos, describing them as Hot, LOL, Puke, Wow, or WTF. Your "shouts" are then displayed to other Joost members so they can see how you reacted to certain videos. Joost's latest social feature dips its toes into the realm of online matchmaking — "Have You Met?" Beta matches Joost members with similar tastes in music and TV. Also new is the "You Might Like" feature, which scans the videos you've watched and makes recommendations based on your viewing history.

Verdict: With so many options for socializing, Joost gives its users the most Facebook-like viewing experience. However, if you're just looking for content, other sites offer more videos and a less cluttered interface.

CBS.com
CBS' Social Viewing Room lets viewers chat, take polls, and answer quizzes while watching synchronized video with other viewers online. You can watch videos as a guest or create your own screen name by registering for free with CBS. (The latter option lets you upload an avatar and create a user profile.) Once inside a social room, you can see other viewers and chat with one another freely. Messages disappear from the screen quickly (a little too quickly), but you can also open a history box, which keeps track of the room's chat log. Although transparent, the history box covers a good portion of the screen when kept open. In addition to chatting, viewers can also answer quizzes during a screening and the viewer with the highest score gets their name displayed for others to see. In addition to taking quizzes, viewers can throw virtual items at the screen including darts, tomatoes, or kisses when they see a character they like or dislike. Each virtual object thrown makes a distinct noise, but fortunately you can disable the sound if it gets annoying. Unfortunately, CBS.com doesn't have a central timetable that lets you know when shows will begin, so most of the time we entered a room mid-show. In addition, only a handful of CBS' shows, like Survivor, The Young & the Restless, and How I Met Your Mother, can be watched socially. Overall, we found most CBS viewers to be quiet. Only when watching reality shows like Survivor did people really chat, and even then, it was still concise messages.

Verdict: Although we were skeptical about social viewing, CBS' social rooms were actually addictive when joined by the right people. However, most of the time it was pointless and made no difference in our viewing experience.

TV.com
Since its relaunch (triggered by CBS' acquisition of CNET), TV.com has added an abundance of new features in hopes of becoming not only a video destination, but also a site where members can participate in building a TV community. For instance, TV.com members can write reviews of episodes, participate in forums, and create blogs that other members can follow. Even the site's homepage lists viewer comments with forums and boards just a click away. In fact, we found it easier to reach a forum on TV.com than it was to reach a video stream. Because it's owned by CBS.com, many of TV.com's features, such as the social viewing rooms, were similar to CBS'.

Verdict: Although its Hulu's biggest competitor, TV.com's main attraction is its community more so than its content. With blogs, social screening rooms, and countless forums, it's the best site for social networking addicts, though we wish it did a better job of presenting it all.

Hulu
In celebration of its one-year anniversary, Hulu has now added social networking features. Hulu Friends is a Facebook-like feature that creates a newsfeed of your activities on Hulu. Users can share videos, leave "notes" for each other, and browse through each others queues, subscriptions, and recently watched list. You can add friends from your e-mail address book or from your Facebook or MySpace accounts. With Facebook Connect, you can also sync your Hulu activity feed with your Facebook feed. Fortunately, Hulu also gives its members the options of disabling these new features. New settings let you switch your profile and activities from public, friends-only, or private.

Verdict: If you're a fan of sites like Facebook, there's no reason you won't like Hulu Friends. However, the site's social features are still a small step compared to what its competitors like TV.com and CBS.com are offering.

Final Verdict
Back in Podcast 48, we made it clear that we didn't want social networking features on our favorite video sites. (You can hear our thoughts on the matter here.) After testing each site's social features, I still prefer my video sites sans the social features.

In fact, I found some of the features a turn off. Joost's laundry list of social features, for instance, makes navigating through the site difficult. Likewise, TV.com feels more like a social version of TV Guide than it does an online video destination. That's not to say they're all horrible. CBS.com's social viewing rooms were somewhat fun — if you're in a room with the right mix of people. Likewise, I like Hulu's approach to social networking, which gives you the option of completely opting out.

Ultimately, I would rather these sites focus on adding more content instead of social features. It's still impossible to guess when a video might be removed from Hulu's servers, and there are still many programs that are not available for streaming online. However, if you must socialize while streaming video, CBS.com if your best option without getting overly cluttered.

Louis Ramirez is dealnews' Features editor.

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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