Way back before there was Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, or even Facebook, Friendster was the hottest social network. The site is widely recognised today as being the grandfather of social media and is credited with laying the foundation for the all-conquering tech titans that dominate today’s online world.
Google wanted to buy Friendster for $30 million back in 2003, but burdened by technical problems and the threat of ever increasing competition from a fledgling Facebook — it had become almost irrelevant in the U.S. by 2006. The site managed to stumble along for a few more years, buoyed by its loyal southeast Asian following, but by 2009, a redesign put the final nail in the coffin for the site that kicked off the social media revolution.
Friendster was founded by a Canadian computer programmer named Jonathan Abrams in 2002. He first came up with the idea for the site whilst chatting with a friend. As they talked about online-offline problems, Abrams mooted the idea of each person having a standardized homepage of their own like some of the dating sites that were in existence at the time. Instead of advertising only their interests and physical appearance to would-be suitors however, users could link their profiles to those of their friends – thus creating a network of connections that would be similar to that experienced in the real world.
Friendster.com went live in 2002 and was rapidly adopted by 3 million users within the first few months of its existence. After turning down Google’s purchase offer of $30 million, the site was then funded by venture capitalists Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers and Benchmark Capital in October 2003 against a $53 million valuation. Friendster’s decision to remain private instead of selling to Google is now widely considered one of the biggest business blunders in the history of Silicon Valley.
On Friendster you were able to browse your friends, send them messages, or join groups, but the focus was on the profile and filling in your personal history by adding photos and gathering as many personal testimonials as you could. It was very popular but the service didn’t offer a level of engagement that went beyond mere “decoration,” of one’s profile. It was basically a more stripped down version of Facebook but the latter had the added benefit of quickly gaining traction amongst college students.
“It was a really weird time. Friendster at the time was still a very small company,” says Abrams. “We viewed ourselves as the David, not the Goliath. There were the Yahoos and the AOLs and we were this tiny, little start up. But the moment Friendster got the publicity, people started to copy it. Of course we were aware of all of them.”
Mark Zuckerberg and his team at Facebook recognized that the news feed was key to Facebook’s long-term success. The site was still attracting new people but he revamped it to elevate the news feed’s importance. Even the Facebook status update became more like a Twitter message, as they got rid of the “so-and-so is watching television whilst eating cornflakes” format and losing its prominence on profile pages.
Facebook’s users initially balked at the changes but Zuckerberg stuck with his gut and people gradually got used to the new design. They started commenting on everything and Facebook gradually got bigger and bigger.
Abrams says he had always wanted to build the equivalent of a news feed before Facebook had even launched, and that he had plans to evolve Friendster into something more akin to what we now know as Facebook.
“The problem was that Friendster was having a lot of technology problems,” Abrams says. Friendster had raised $13 million of funding in 2003 but investors weren’t focused on patching up the service properly, let alone responding to the threats posed by upstarts like Facebook.
“The fact that we didn’t launch those products was a problem, but even more fundamentally, people could barely log into the website for two years,” he says. “By the time Facebook and MySpace were doing those things, Friendster had lost a lot of market share in the U.S. for stability issues.”
Abrams claims not to remember the exact moment he first heard about the inception of Facebook, but two months after it launched in February 2004, Friendster’s board replaced him as CEO and moved him to the more ceremonial position of Chairman.
Friendster ended up existing in a state of managed decline with weakly connected chains of friends that were continually disintegrating.
By 2009, Friendster still had tens of millions of users but the bonds between them weren’t particularly strong. Many users weren’t connected to a significant number of other users and the new people they befriended tended to come with just a handful of connections. Everybody ended up being so loosely affiliated with the network that the burden of dealing with the site’s redesign in 2009 became too much for them to handle.
Friendster and to some extent MySpace, didn’t really stand a chance once Facebook made the news feed its central focus. If either service had introduced a comparable user experience to the news feed, it would have been too little too late.
For a social network to ultimately be successful, its focus needs to be on the social element. When a Twitter or Facebook account is created, one of the first things you’re asked to do is put up some kind of status update. The sites immediately steer you towards reaching out to others and it’s apparent that Friendster put too much emphasis on the media, and not enough on the social.
In our opinion Abrams and the Friendster team shouldn’t be too downhearted about not cashing in on Friendster when they could have done. Our publisher Darcus White once won £600 on the horses but instead of cashing the ticket in straight away, he went out to celebrate with a few of his mates and got incredibly drunk, soiled his pants and then washed them the next day only to find out he’d left the ticket in one of the pockets.