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The face of social networking then and now

January 20, 2016

friendster-screen

Three days ago, on January 18, the once-popular UK-based website Friends Reunited announced that after 15 years, it would soon be closing — forever.

This adds to the long list of social networking sites that have been kicked to the curb of the Information Superhighway by the overwhelming success of Facebook.

It also adds one more example to my pet theory that overly humanizing and focusing a social networking service’s image somehow limits its growth potential.

A trip down memory lane to see all the old friends and faces

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PlanetAll (logo featured striding person icon)

Founded in 1996, PlanetAll was a pioneering and innovative social networking site of the Palm Pilot era that offered each user a calendar and an address book, all of which were linked together and enabled the site to automatically notify users when they were scheduled to cross paths with each other.

Amazon.com purchased PlanetAll in 1998, absorbed the site’s key functionality and then shut it down for good in 2000.

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Friendster (logo features a big happy face)

Launched by Canadian programmer Jonathan Abrams in 2002, Friendster (a portmanteau of “friend” and “Napster“) gained an amazing (at the time) three million users in its first three months. The future looked so bright to Abrams that he famously turned down a USD$30 million buyout offer from Google in 2003.

However, Friendster failed from the beginning to cope with its success. Hardware wasn’t scaled to match the rapid early growth and as a result the site became difficult to use.  It’s engineers never quite seemed to catch up — stability- or features-wise and his had the effect of limiting the prospects for long-term growth.

By 2006 Friendster was tanking, overtaken by MySpace, which the New York Times called a copycat social networking site.

According to a later “autopsy” of Friendster, it peaked at about 100 million users before a major site redesign in 2009 (including a new logo with a less prominent happy face), complete with more technical glitches, caused its membership to “hemorrhage”. In 2011 it redesigned itself again — this time as a social gaming site (with even more happy faces in the logo).

On June 14, 2015, Friendster shut down again. A placeholder front page describes it alternately as a “pause” or “taking a break”.

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MySpace (logo features a trio of icon people)

Launched in 2003, MySpace became the biggest thing in social media for about five years. It grew to become the world’s most-visited website in 2006 before finally peaking in 2008 with 110 million monthly active users globally. In June of 2009, though, it was surpassed by Facebook.

In November of 2014, MySpace announced (to some amazement) that it still existed and had 50.6 million unique users in the United States to boot; a number that compares favourably to the 66 million monthly active U.S. users that Twitter recorded in October 2015.

One curious holdover of MySpace’s former glory is the fact that it can’t be accessed over McDonald’s Canada’s free Wi-Fi.

Back in 2006, owing to legitimate fears that, as the world’s most popular social networking site, it was a focal point of predators intent on child luring, MySpace was apparently placed on the secret Cleanfeed Canada Internet blacklist, maintained by the Canadian Coalition Against Internet Child Exploitation (CCAICE).

This blacklist is used to filter access to websites on McDonald’s Canada’s free in-store Wi-Fi and a decade on, MySpace is still being blocked — but not Facebook and Twitter, which is where the predators all moved to years ago.

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Ello (logo features an eyeless happy face)

When Ello launched March 2014, it promised (in contrast to Facebook and Twitter) no advertising, no user tracking and no real name requirements. By September it was the hottest topic on social media and the by-invitation-only social network was doing a land office business processing more than 30,000 signup requests an hour; this was thanks in large part to a backlash by the LGBT community against Facebook’s real names policy.

Ello’s co-founder, Paul Budnitz, explaned that the site was doubling in size every three to four days.

Within four months, however, all the buzz was gone. Budnitz was telling anyone who’d listen  that Ello had lots of cash and “millions of users” But TechCrunch echoed the general consensus that Ello was “over” — that it had replaced Friendster as the object lesson of a social networking flash in the pan.

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Friends Reunited (logo features several smiling, happy people)

The UK-based Friends Reunited website was created way back in 2000 by the husband and wife team of Julie and Jason Pankhurst and their friend Jason Porter, in order to help users track down and reconnect with long-lost chums. Over time, the site expanded to include genealogy, dating and job hunting.

Between 2005 and 2009 Friends was owned by the British TV network ITV, during which time the site achieved major commercial and cultural success, particularly in the U.K. After going through a second ownership change, the site was refocused in 2012 as a sort of nostalgic photo-sharing site. And in 2014, two of the original co-founders, Steve Pankhurst and Jason Porter, regained control.

Pankhurst and Porter came back with the intention of returning the site to its original focus as a friend finder but the big question was whether such a limited first generation “Web 1.0” concept still made any sense.

The answer, of course, was “no”. If you want to reconnect with a long-lost schoolmate or co-worker these days, you just check Facebook, right?

On January 18, Pankhurst announced in an email entitled “the sunset of an era”, that while the site still has a “handful” of users, it was no longer viable — that “the world is now a very different place” and that Friends Reunited is no longer able to compete with Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“Therefore,” wrote Pankhurst, “it is with a heavy heart, that we have decided to close the service down.”

Reddit-logo

Reddit (logo features a happy-faced alien)

Founder in 2005, Reddit could be an exception that proves the rule; it certainly is exceptional in several senses: it’s extremely popular — the 32nd-most visited social networking site on the Internet, with something like 542 million monthly visitors in 2015. There are supposedly only 71 paid employees and most of the actual work is done by volunteer users, which makes it something of an asylum run by its inmates. And finally, the Reddit happy face is an exception because it belongs to an alien, which doesn’t count in my theory.

On the other hand, Reddit (like Twitter) has yet to figure out how to turn a profit and (like Twitter) it’s had trouble finding a clear executive vision for the future. No one would be surprised if Reddit (like Twitter) continued for another decade or collapsed next week.

Eat more, grow bigger, adapt faster, or die

The announcement this week that Friends Reunited would finally be shutting down after 15 years, led many people in the United Kingdom to openly wonder how the site had ever lasted so long in the shadow of Facebook. The same question has been asked of MySpace. But a better question, perhaps, is why didn’t it work the other way round?

Why was it that so many solidly established social networking sites were unable to capitalize on their lead or keep their users from jumping to the upstart Facebook?

As James Hiritz, a fomer MySpacer explains, in his answer to a Quora question about the fall of MySpace:

“It did not continually evolve the product and roll out features fast enough or in a regular way. They did ship product, but they just didn’t do it as fast as Facebook.”

This appears to also be true of Friendster and equally applies to Friends Reunited.

It’s clear to me that any social networking site that relies on a fixed feature set or identity or gimmick (like 140 character messages) for its differentiation and success is doomed  — if not to failure — then to a Peter Principle fate of rising only so far and no farther.

The Peter Principle, which predicts that managers will rise to the level of their own incompetence, can, I think, be generalized to say that “limits limit growth”.

And clearly, just adding any old features, or features that pander to users, doesn’t cut it. Management has to know enough to aim for their sweet spot, which is where the bottom line of the site best intersects with the desires of users.

So, while Friendster, MySpace and Facebook all began with a focus on user profiles, for example. And while Friendster’s engineers recognized that they needed to give users more engaging things to do beyond just tweaking their profiles, it was Facebook that acted to push the profile to the background and promote the news feed, which, despite initial user resistance, effectively encouraged greater user participation and engagement.

By the way, I’m only half-joking about the danger of including faces in the logos of social networking sites. I think that it needlessly narrows would-be users’ expectations and signals narrow thinking on the part of the founders.

It certainly hasn’t hurt Facebook that since the site went live in 2004, the only face ever included in their logo has been the custom-designed typeface based on Klavica Bold.

There’s a reason big faceless companies are that way

The Facebook logo is almost as blank a corporate brand as the famously meaningless Exxon logo (that may, or may not have been created by a computer). It identifies without implying anything that could turn off users. It leaves Facebook free to project an image onto their brand that is situationally appropriate at any given moment.

Ask yourself what the raison d’être, or most important thing, is about any particular social networking service.

I’ll start: WordPress is about long-form blogging, Tumbler is about short-form blogging, Twitter is about 140-character blogging and Ello is about micro blogging in an environment that looks like it was designed by architect Mies van der Rohe on one of his bad days.

I would argue that sites with especially contrived purposes have the lowest prospects for big success.

So, what is Facebook’s raison d’être — what is it about? Clearly, it is purely and simply about making money. Time and again Facebook it has shown a willingness to reinvent and adjust to meet changing tastes. It doesn’t want to be the prettiest or hippest — just the biggest and most profitable and the smartest — business-wise.

From the beginning Facebook, appears to have pursued a long term strategy of forsaking short term profit for explosive growth. It has done this with the bold confidence that it would always be smart enough and capable enough to ride the tiger of scalability and securely hold onto the users that it gained.

Consider the contrasting approaches that Friends Reunited and Facebook each took to monetizing their product.

Facebook did so indirectly — staying outwardly free while selling their users’ attention span and metadata behind the scenes. Friends Reunited chose a more short-sighted option of first charging each user an annual fee before making the basic site free but then charging users to send a message to someone.

As a result, in July of 2010, Friends Reunited was 10 years old and had an estimated 28.8 million users, mostly in the U.K, Australia and New Zealand. On the other hand, in July of 2010, Facebook was only six years old but it had 500 million users distributed around the world.

Creating a pay barrier obviously limits user growth. And a large user base works for social networks the same way that it works for spam email campaigns: The more users you reach, the less you need to make off each of them in order to make yourself a big pile of money.

But, like they also say in business, It’s not just about what you get, it’s also about what you keep.

And, unlike its competitors, Facebook has learned how to keep the customers that it gets. This means that Facebook’s growth has simultaneously reduced the potential growth of all its potential competitors — bonus!

In 2016 we learned just how seriously Facebook takes user retention and how compelling they have made themselves to users.

An undisclosed number of times over the years, Facebook has deliberately sabotaged their Android mobile app — generating errors to make the app unusable for an unspecified numbers of users, for various lengths of time — all to see what it would take to make people give up on trying to use Facebook:

“People never stopped coming back,” someone familiar with the tests explained to the website The Information. Users subjected to the longest bouts of errors resorted to their mobile browser to access the web version of Facebook, rather than give up.

We just have to face the fact that Facebook has run circles around its competitors and done the best job of virtually any social networking platform (save possibly Google) of getting, engaging, keeping and monetizing users. And Facebook has positioned itself (as Google also has) to be whatever users want it to be for the foreseeable future.

Barring the emergence of another Facebook or Google. Click the images to enlarge them.

From → Internet

2 Comments
  1. Margaret permalink

    This is a superb post that goes through the (relatively short) history of social networking. So what’s next after Facebook? 🙂

    • I like to dream that a kind of decentralized, mesh network, peer-to-peer capability will allow hundreds of millions of people to social network without any centralized entity.

      But I fear that that the cycle I’ve lived through: Online services (CompuServe), open Internet (Usenet), Web 1.0 (GeoCities), Web 2.0 (Facebook) ends up right back where it started, namely with a handful of mega-large, city state online services.

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