Aug 17, 2019
Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us for the innovations of the future! Todays episode is on former Social Networking pioneer, Friendster. Today when you go to friendster.com you get a page that the social network is taking a break. The post was put up in 2018. How long did Rip Van Winkle Sleep? But what led to the rise of the first big social network and well, what happened? The story begins in 1973. Talkomatic was a chat room and was a hit in the PLATO or Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations community at the University of Illinois, an educational learning system that had been running since 1960. Dave Woolley and Douglas Brows at the University of Illinois brought chat and then the staff built TERM-Talk the same year, adding screen sharing and PLATO Notes would be added where you could add notes to your profile. This was the inspiration for the name of Lotus Notes. Then in the 80s came Bulletin Board Systems, 84 brought FidoNet, 88 brought IRC, 96 brought ICQ, and in 96 we got Bolt.com, the first social networking and video website with SixDegrees coming in 1997 as the first real social media website. AOL Instant Messenger showed up the same year and AOL bought ICQ in 99. It was pretty sweet that I didn’t have to remember all those ICQ numbers any more! 1999 - Yahoo! And Microsoft got in the game launching tools called Messenger at about the same time and LiveJournal came along, as well as Habbo, a social networking site for games. By 2001 Six Degrees shut down and Messenger was shipped with XP. But 2002. That was the year the Euro hit the street. Before England dissed it. That was the year Israeli and Palestinian conflicts escalated. Actually, that’s a lot of years, regrettably. I remember scandals at Enron and Worldcom well that year, ultimate resulting in Sarbanes Oxley to counter the more than 5 trillion dollars in corporate scandals that sent the economy into a tailspin. My Georgia Bulldogs football team beat Arkansas to win the SEC title and then beat Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. Nelly released Hot In Here and Eminem released Lose Yourself and Without Me. If film, Harry Potter was searching for the Chamber of Secrets and Frodo was on a great trek to the Two Towers. Eminem was in the theaters as well with 8 Mile. And Friendster was launched by Jonathan Abrams in Mountain View California. They wanted to get people making new friends and meeting in person. It was an immediate hit and people flocked to the site. They grew to three million users in just a few months, catching the attention of investors. As a young consultant, I loved keeping track of my friends who I never got to see in person using Friendster. Napster was popular at the time and the name Friendster came from a mashup of friends and Napster. With this early success, Friendster took $12 million dollars in funding from VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Benchmark Capital the next year. That was the year a Harvard student named Mark Zuckerburg launched FaceMash with his roommate Eduardo Saverin for Harvard students in a kinda’ “Hot or Not” game. They would later buy Instagram as a form of euphoric recall, looking back on those days. Google has long wanted a social media footprint and tried to buy Friendster in 2003, but when rejected launched Orkut in 2004 - which just ran in Brazil, tried Google Friend Connect in 2008, which lasted until 2012, Google Buzz, which launched in 2010 and only lasted a year, Google Wave, which launched in 2009 and also only lasted a year, and of course, Google + which ran from 2011 to 2019. Google is back at it again with a new social network called Shoelace out of their Area 120 incubator. The $30 million dollars in Google stock would be worth a billion dollars today. MySpace was also launched in 2003 by Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson, growing to have more traffic than Google over time. But Facebook launched in 2004 and after having problems keeping the servers up and running, Friendster's board replaced Abrams as CEO and moved him to chairmen of the board. He was replaced by Scott Sassa. And then in 2005 Sassa was replaced by Taek Kwn and then he was replaced by Kent Lindstrom who was replaced by Richard Kimber. Such rapid churn in the top spot means problems. A rudderless ship. In 2006 they added widgets to keep up with MySpace. They didn’t. They also opened up a developer program and opened up APIs. They still had 52 million unique visitors worldwide in June 2008. But by then, MySpace had grown to 7 times their size. MOL Global, an online payments processor from Malaysia bought the company in 2009 and relaunched the site. All user data was erased and Friendster provided an export tool to move data to other popular sites at the time, such as Flickr. In 2009 Friendster had 3 Million unique visitors per day. They relaunched But that dropped to less than a quarter million by the end of 2010. People abandoned the network. What happened? Facebook eclipsed the Friendster traffic in 2009. Friendster became something more used in Asia than the US. Really, though, I remember early technical problems. I remember not being able to log in, so moving over to MySpace. I remember slow loading times. And I remember more and more people spending time on MySpace, customizing their MySpace page. Facebook did something different. Sure, you couldn’t customize the page, but the simple layout loaded fast and was always online. This reminds me of the scene in the show Silicon Valley, when they have to grab the fire extinguisher because they set the house on fire from having too much traffic! In 2010, Facebook acquired Friendster's portfolio of social networking patents for $40 million dollars. In 2011, Newscorp sold MySpace for $35 million dollars after it had been valued at it peak in 2008. After continuing its decline, Friendster was sold to a social gaming site in 2015, trying to capitalize on the success that Facebook had doing online gaming. But after an immediate burst of users, it too was not successful. In 2018 the site finally closed its doors. Today Friendster is the 651,465th ranked site in the world. There are a few thing to think about when you look at the Friendster story: 1. The Internet would not be what it is today without sites like Friendster to help people want to be on it. 2. The first company on a new thing isn’t always the one that really breaks through 3. You have to, and I mean, have to keep your servers up. This is a critical aspect of maintaining you’re momentum. I was involved with one of the first 5 facebook apps. And we had no idea 2 million people would use that app in the weekend it was launched. We moved mountains to get more servers and clusters brought online and refactored sql queries on the fly, working over 70 hours in a weekend. And within a week we hit 10 million users. That app paid for dozens of other projects and was online for years. 4. When investors move in, the founder usually gets fired at the first sign of trouble. Many organizations simply can’t find their equilibrium after that and flounder. 5. Last but not least: Don’t refactor every year, but if you can’t keep your servers up, you might just have too much technical debt. I’m sure everyone involved with Friendster wishes they could go back and do many things differently. But hindsight is always 20/20. They played their part in the advent of the Internet. Without early pioneers like Friendster we wouldn’t be where we are at today. As Heinlein said, “yet another crew of Rip Van Winkle’s” But Buck Rogers eventually did actually wake back up, and maybe Friendster will as well. Thank you for tuning into another episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We’re lucky to have you. Have a great day!