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.
The need is certainly there. Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.org, says, “People have an enormous craving for better ways of connecting with people.” The rise of Friendster had everything to do with the people who were first attracted to the site and what they were looking to use it for. But there was no single reason, and users came for very different purposes. Some found a new tool they could use to get in contact with other people. There were also those who saw it as a form of entertainment — people who created fake Friendster profiles, like my GI Joes. The world of the Fakester was all about creating a witty profile and collecting similarly witty testimonials. And the creation of the Fakester population defined the other segment of users: the Realster, a term for someone who posted an actual profile, in keeping with the intent of the site. (Of course, the concept of “real” in online personals is almost hopelessly compromised. Did you really read Underworld? Is Dookie really one of your favorite albums?)
Friendster, to the Realsters, depended on a community vision of honesty and a common standard of contact. Friendster founder and chairman Jonathan Abrams saw the Fakesters as immediate threats to the community, and started deleting their profiles. This irked the people who were creating Fakesters — the very same people who made the site popular to begin with. In a confusing twist, Friendster has recently allowed DreamWorks to post fake profiles of the characters from Anchorman — an about-face in policy and a clear violation of its own user agreement.
It wasn’t the only option. The online world has faced this problem before. EBay, a site whose success relies on establishing faith in the reality of its sellers, created ratings for its users. It doesn’t guarantee perfection, but it allows the community to punish “bad” users and reward “good” ones. Like eBay, Friendster is a site whose entire content is user-created. Besides some rigidly hip T-shirts (“Do it with your friends,” reads one), underwear and hats, it offers nothing for sale, and no services beyond connecting people. Its entire value comes from the quality and quantity of its users.
This is an important point, because it means that Friendster’s relationship to its users is central to its success. The history of the site is full of tension between the aims of Friendster’s creators, who wanted to build a “real” online community, and Fakesters who are dedicated members of the Friendster community but in a very “fake” way.
This difference is a greater threat to the long-term viability of Friendster as an online community than are slow servers or poor customer service. The difference is between trusting your users to come up with new ways of using your site to meet their own needs, and imposing a vision of your own — the difference between fostering community and forcing it.
“If people are running a community site because they love what they’re doing,” says Newmark, “and aren’t expecting to flip it for a lot of money — there’s a difference between a site like that, [which] speaks with a human voice, and [a] site that speaks with a corporate voice. And if you’re thinking about yourself as a corporation and are intending to make a lot of money, people are going to have a different sense about you.”
Newmark has also had to deal with the vagaries of online transactions — like real estate brokers posting their listings on the no-fee and by-owner sections of the New York Craigslist rental listings, but he lets the community itself do most of the policing.
The ability to gauge the importance of connections is central to figuring out how social networking is going to be used. Just linking up is quantitative, not qualitative. It raises the question: What do we think being connected is going to do for us? “The idea about networks is that if you connect everything up, its all going to be great, and that’s not true,” Watts says. “You connect power grids into a big multi-state grid — it’s, generally speaking, more robust, and it’s certainly more efficient, but it’s also subject to really big failures. No one really thinks about what it means to be connected. What does it mean for A to be connected to B?”
In the world of Friendster, the answer is “not much.” I am connected equally to all four of my degrees of separation, though only one of them is really a friend. If it’s true that we go online looking for connections that we haven’t made in real life, perhaps the connections themselves can’t bear up under all that weight. Meanings come from relationships, not just connectivity, and Friendster can’t just give you a meaningful relationship.
The real challenge to online social networks, as Newmark sees it, will be the ability to differentiate between various types of connections. He says, “We need ways of connecting online that fit better, that recognize strong versus weak ties.”
Or maybe, as Watts says, “People just like to check each other out. This is the universal constant that everybody sort of forgets about in technology stories: People have not changed, ever. We still want the same stuff that we wanted 40,000 years ago.”
Friendster may have been the first big social networking site, but it certainly won’t be the last. Then there are all those sites that are social in nature but not necessarily about networking. A quick survey of other Web sites where communities and creativity are coming together:
•Orkut.com. A Friendster-like social-networking site with the country-club approach: You can only join after a current member has invited you. This cuts down on the randomness and size of the site and gives an invitation far more cachet (unless you subscribe to the Groucho Marx philosophy on clubs). It’s supplanted Friendster as the networking site du jour.
•Facebook.com. Could be called Friendster U — a college-only social-networking site, so far only at places like UCLA, Cal Berkeley, UC Davis, Harvard, and NYU.
•Dodgeball.com. Combines the structure of a social network with the immediacy of text messaging. “Tell us where you are, and we’ll broadcast your location to all your friends and let you know if any friends-of-friends are within 10 blocks,” says the Web site. Started in New York but recently arrived in Los Angeles, it also lets you look up bars and clubs through your phone.
•TextAmerica.com. Allows people to create their own moblogs — weblogs comprised of photos or video taken from their mobile phones. The “Recently Shared Image” page is like peeking into the off moments of a bunch of strangers’ lives (see also Buzznet.com).
•Fotolog.net. Much like TextAmerica and Buzznet but not restricted to pictures taken with mobile phones. The site’s design is awkwardly plain, but the images are often first-rate (see Laura Holder’s portfolio at www.fotolog.net/lauratitian/).
•GroupHug.us. Debuted in October 2003 and has since taken Web anonymity to a new level: “The idea is for anyone to anonymously confess to anything.” Simple in design and concept, GroupHug merely lists unsigned confessions, either in the order posted or randomly. The confessions range from the mundane — “I won’t date anyone who does not have nice feet!” — to the disturbing — “Every time I shoot up, I catch myself thinking, ‘I hope this is the one that kills me.’”
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