093- Virtual friends – 2002

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Every person is a new door to a different world.  Six Degrees of Separation movie line

In March 2002 Friendster.com was developed by Jonathan Abrams and Peter Chin.  It was similar to its predecessors Match.com (1993), Classmates (1995) and Friends Reunited (1999) in that users could contact each other to share messages, photos and videos; dating was also a theme.

Jonathan Abrams had worked previously at Netscape on the Navigator browser.  In 1998 he founded HotLinks that ranked sites by users’ preferences.  It grew to 500,000 users but ran out of cash when the dotcom bubble burst.

Abrams studied Match.com and was concerned about the notion of linking an online profile with an individual’s off-line real self.  He came up with an approach where the user would publish a profile and then create a network of friends for intercommunication.  He foresaw that having mutual friends made dating approaches easier.  He produced a system to test the idea and patented it.  It calculated networking connections between users up to four degrees of separation.

Friendster launched in March 2003 and by June there were 800,000 users; by autumn this had grown to 2 million.

Its calculation of connections became an issue as the sheer scope of the arithmetic expanded exponentially and the service proved slow as a result.  The approach adopted was to throw expensive hardware and software at it rather than to modify the general process.   Abrams appeared more engrossed in the publicity the operation was generating than resolving its internal issues.

He turned down a $30m offer from Google for Friendster and instead raised $13m funding in 2003.  But this diluted him to a one-third ownership and he no longer exercised control of the operation.  The organisation added a layer of august individuals to run the day-to-day business but these egos failed to agree on an approach and became more involved in internal politics than addressing user needs.

When they finally looked at the users they found these peaked at 2.00am.  Further investigation revealed most were located in Asia, yet the company was spending its marketing monies in the USA!  It also showed that dating was not the main application; reviewing each other’s interests was the draw.

2009 There were 75 million users, with 90% of the traffic in Asia.  Friendster was acquired by Tan Sri Vincent Tan’s MOL Global in Malaysia and the site was relaunched as part of the takeover. 

By 2011 Friendster had 115 million registered users and recorded 19 million page views per month.  It was offered in a range of Asian languages in addition to English and Spanish.  Friendster predated MySpace, Facebook and others that became more successful; its failings became a Harvard Business School case study.

July 2000 the British couple Julie and Stephen Pankhurst launched Friends Reunited; inside eighteen months it had 2.5 million users.  In 2002 it went international with sites in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.  It was sold in 2005 to the UK ITV television company for £120m.

The site had a chequered press when it emerged that some employers used it to screen staff applications.  Also a number of individuals met up with old flames and walked away from current relationships.  Comments about teachers made on the site became the basis for a series of legal actions.

Friends Reunited seemed to lose its way as the whole social networking scene took off.   The site was sold in August 2009 for just £25m to a DC Thomson subsidiary, BrightSolid Limited.

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