By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by Julie West
These are my four degrees of separation: My friend Dubin (favorite music: Von Von Von) invited me to join Friendster in May of 2003, just after she returned from a visit to Oakland where Friendster was blowing up. She, in turn, was invited by LosingMyMojo (member since April 2003), who was asked into the fold by the enigmatic Robbf (interests: fake meat products), originally invited by Sharilyn (who wants to meet “fellow paper collectors”).
I signed up out of curiosity — Dubin was very enthusiastic about the site, but couldn’t really explain what she did with it. At first I did exactly what you’re supposed to do: invite other friends, look for high school classmates, fret over the wording of my profile, and take awkward digital self-portraits in the bathroom mirror. I exchanged messages with people I haven’t spoken to in years, which was both pleasant and awkward. When I ran out of people to look up, I invented profiles for my favorite GI Joe characters (who remain far more popular than I, and have far more interesting profiles).
And then, like a summer fling, it was over. I pretty much stopped using the site after a few months, unsure of what I was supposed to be doing there. With half a million people in my personal network, I felt overwhelmed.
I’m not alone. By the end of November, Wired News had run a story about “the Friendster abandonment trend.” Citing poor customer service and strict policing of user profiles (my GI Joes, it turns out, are in violation of the User Agreement), the article warned that “the bottom line for Friendster may be that it misread the needs” of its users.
The trend has since been borne out by Friendster’s declining user statistics. Last fall, when it received $13 million in venture-capital funding, it boasted 1.7 million unique visitors per month, but by June that number had dropped to less than 1 million, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. The site has also faced competition — both in the form of rival sites like Google’s Orkut.com, offshoot sites like Dogster.com (an online place for dogs to meet) and parodies like Fiendster.com. Friendster’s business model has yet to materialize, but with the hiring of former NBC exec Scott Sassa, there’s a feeling that the site may use its social-networking leverage to transition into some kind of media or portal site.
It’s still too early to speculate on whether Friendster will succeed as a business, and things will certainly change when it institutes some kind of structure that actually involves making money. But the argument over whether the site is “over” is beside the point; social networking and online communities are here to stay, even if Friendster doesn’t make it. (And Friendster does have more than 7 million registered users.) A May study by BURST! Media claimed that one in five Internet users had visited a social-networking site, and that half of those actually registered at the site they visited. The question is, if Friendster is misreading the needs of its users, what are those needs? What do we want out of sites like Friendster?
Like any fad — Razor scooters, wearing clothes backward, trucker hats — how quickly Friendster caught on and spread was determined by the people who first “discovered” it. Duncan Watts, an associate professor of sociology at Columbia and author of Six Degrees: The Science of the Connected Age, credits Friendster’s recruitment strategy for much of the site’s early success. “It’s a very good strategy, having friends ask you. You only want to join Friendster on the condition that a lot of other people join it. How well these things succeed depends very heavily on people who need just one recommendation.”
Those same people, however, may not stick around for long, and could account for Friendster’s decline. “It may not be a good strategy ultimately,” says Watts, “in the sense that if people are joining just for kicks, they may not be very useful members of the site. In some sense it’s had this impact — Facebook, Orkut, even Dodgeball.com all seem to be Friendster-inspired, so it’s certainly had its day. I don’t get the impression that it has really succeeded as a dating service.”
In his book, Watts writes about certain networks being vulnerable to change and that it is within these networks that trends get started. The young, urban hipsters in places like Silver Lake and Williamsburg are just that: open to change, constantly seeking out the new and the cool, very well connected. It was among this network of people, the same demographic that brought back Pabst Blue Ribbon, that Friendster landed and then exploded, creating a new kind of online community.
Creating a community, though, is a tricky business. Communities have a thing about being organic — their dynamics don’t fit easily into pre-made molds. Communities often come together for shared interests — sports, romance, political causes. Friendster is trying to be a community whose reason for being is as a community.