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MIT junior sells high-school social networking site

Junior Joe Presbrey has a good idea how the owners of YouTube must have felt this week when they sold their site to Google for $1.65 billion.

In March 2006, Presbrey sold Sconex, the high-school networking web site he cofounded, to New York teen marketing firm Alloy for more than $6 million.

"We just had the right timing," said Presbrey, a Florida native, whose site is similar to established social networking sites like Friendster, Facebook and MySpace, except that it is exclusively for high-school-age students. "Had Facebook not started, we may not have become so popular."

Since its inception in 2005, Sconex has grown extremely popular with high school students. Thousands of students log on each day from high schools across the country to post information about themselves, read about classmates, link with friends, share photos, talk about classes and network with new friends.

Presbrey said the typical user spends at least 20 minutes on Sconex when they log on. That is 17 more minutes than the average user of other social networking sites, who log on just to check their e-mail. "I think high school students are a lot more bored than college students," Presbrey said with a laugh.

When Presbrey and his team launched the site, they were not sure how far it would go. "It spread mostly through word of mouth," Presbrey said. Although used nationwide, the site is most popular with urban high schools on the East Coast.

With all of the recent publicity about the security of sites like MySpace, social networking sites have to take security seriously, said Presbrey. All Sconex registrants answer security questions about their high school to verify they are real students. People who aren't recognized by others in their school can be removed.

Although he is young, Presbrey is no stranger to computers. In high school, he started his own computer business covering service, network programming and more. He has written various pieces of software, including security software for which he earned a copyright.

Presbrey and his partners started Sconex with an eye on selling eventually. It was a rough road, he said. "For a while I thought more about the health of the web site than my own health," said Presbrey. There were many late nights and hours spent working on the site. "It was definitely worth it in the end though," Presbrey said.

Since selling the site some things have changed, Presbrey said. High school students ask him questions and want him to hear their ideas. "It gets everyone excited and hopefully more motivated," he said.

Presbrey will continue to work on Sconex out of a Kendall Square office until he leaves Boston. But the electrical engineering and computer science major still finds time to stay involved with MIT. He is the president of his fraternity and takes his schoolwork very seriously. "MIT students are trained to do more than one thing," he said. "I like to keep things varied."

Presbrey said he is far from resting on his laurels. He hopes to continue his work and launch more successful web sites in the future. "This is one of the first big successes for me," he said. "It has all been a lot of fun."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 18, 2006 (download PDF).

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