Sites like ThisNext and a handful of services like, and are spearheading a new category of e-commerce called “social shopping,” that tries to combine two favorite online activities: shopping and social networking. These sites are hoping to ride the MySpace wave by gathering people in one place to swap shopping ideas. And like MySpace, the sites are designed for both browsing and blogging, with some shopping-related technology twists included.

Social shopping is just the latest solution to a chronic problem for online retailers and shoppers: many shoppers aren’t sure what to buy, but they know they won’t find it on the sites of mainstream retailers like Macy’s, Amazon or Wal-Mart.

Online retailers often refer to this as the “product discovery” problem, but it might better be referred to as online retailing’s Teflon piñata, so many times have entrepreneurs tried to crack it.

“Online shopping is more accurately described as purchasing, because it’s so directed and goal-specific,” said Gordon Gould, ThisNext’s chief executive. “You might be looking for a plasma screen TV, but there’s not a lot of lateral thinking about what else you might be interested in. We want to show people other products that wouldn’t make sense for an e-tailer to batch together.”

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