The Social Notworks
Whatever happened to Friendster? MySpace? Google Wave?! We investigate the fates of eight online ghost towns (so you don’t have to try to retrieve your password).
by Brad Pareso and James Monaco
What the heck was that?
If not the first social network, Friendster was at least the beginning of the social network as a large-scale viral novelty. It was founded in 2002, and its basic concept of “friending” people on the Web took off. As Wired columnist Clive Thompson explains, “It had never really before been possible to see what your social network looked like…it was really sort of interesting to see the dimensions of something like that in a tactile way.” The publicized concept may have been to meet new people online, but the real buzz was just that—making your social life tactile, visible and measurable. Former user Angelo Merenda laughs while realizing, “It really was more about friending your real-life friends for me”—a pointless activity, but fascinating as a novelty.
Competition arose. It turned out that Friendster didn’t allow for much more than friending your friends and maybe scaring up a date. Michael Wolff, author and media writer for Vanity Fair and Wired, sums up the whole social network movement, from Friendster on, by saying: “Critical mass is the entire ballgame with social networks. Critical mass is a product of superior functionality. Facebook’s functionality was better, therefore it took critical mass from all other consumer social networks.” Though Friendster’s idea was brilliant, its functionality was quite limited.
Where is it now?
For a good while, Friendster maintained a massive hold in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. This turns out to be an unplanned escape route for many failing social networks: When the U.S. bails, go elsewhere. In late 2008, Friendster moved permanently to Asia, and proudly announced itself as the “#1 Social Network in Malaysia,” just in time to sell itself off to a major Malaysian company before utterly tanking, even in Asia. According to Alexa ratings it is now the 87th most visited site in Malaysia, where Facebook beats out even Google for the No. 1 spot. A quick snoop through almost any of these Southeast-Asian profiles shows a last comment from a friend left around the end of 2009. The exodus was clearly sudden, but no comments show any recognition of the drop-off. Some final comments left were: “Happy Birthday!”, “how are you?”, “merry christmas!”, “merry xmas for u!” and, the most indicative: “add my facebook.” It’s as if a national Malaysian decree went out over the New Year announcing Friendster was now irrelevant.
What the heck was that?
There was a time when MySpace was the social network, but times have changed (see: the subject of The Social Network). Following the founding of Friendster in 2002, MySpace rose in meteoric fashion at the keyboard-mashing hands of a few former Friendster employees. In January of ’04, MySpace went live. A month later, it had 1 million users. By November of the same year, it had 5 million. In July of the following year it was sold to Rupert Murdoch and the gang at News Corp. for $580 million.
Why was MySpace exploding? For starters, it had a look far more appealing than LiveJournal (see below). MySpace was the first social network to truly take the idea of conversation and translate it to the Web with real results. And seriously, have you seen MySpace? Sparkles, bright colors, poor grammar—it’s a teen’s ADHD dream come true. And with that teen market and a music player came an easy way for music artists to target their biggest demographic, leading anyone with a guitar or “singing voice” to jump on the bandwagon. (Consider, for instance, that Lily Allen’s career has long been attributed to her MySpace self-promotion.) Musicians, concert venues and businesses still use MySpace as a place to communicate with fans. (The MySpace record label—the topic of much industry consternation in 2006—amounted to nothing, however.)
In a word—Facebook. MySpace had a huge lead in the social networking world, but elected to do nothing more than twiddle its thumbs while others caught up. One of the biggest gripes from MySpace users came to be its design, which was fresh and intelligently put together in 2004 but quickly grew stale over time. The site is teasing a new profile page design, what it calls “the first of many exciting upgrades to come,” now. In 2010. Facebook received a ton of flak for its various redesigns over the past six years, but in the end settled on something most users liked that was still new.
And what would a MySpace discussion be without mentioning the site’s privacy—or lack thereof. Many a story has been written about pedophiles infiltrating MySpace with usernames like “BaseballFan51” to have conversations with underage kids with usernames like “JustinBieberFan13.” Teenagers met people they encountered on MySpace in real life and subsequently were sexually abused. Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl, committed suicide after being bullied on MySpace by a kid named Josh Evans—actually Meier’s friend’s mother. Sound like a place you want to hang out?
Most of all, MySpace doesn’t know what it’s trying to do, says Ethan Bloch, co-founder of social media marketing platform Flowtown.
“You’ve got to come back to, ‘What do I believe in? What does MySpace believe in? What are our values? Why did we even start this site?’ And then focus on the values and optimize and iterate on your product to get back to those core values. If they’re going to go on an arms race with Facebook, they’re going to lose, because Facebook has core values. Zuckerberg has said, ‘We print more news in a single day than the Washington Post will print in 10 years. But we’re printing news about people’s lives.’ And that was what he believed in. MySpace never had this belief, and if they did at the beginning, they lost it. And then they were acquired [by NewsCorp] and there was never any strong management and direction.”
Where is it now?
MySpace is still a behemoth in the social networking space, with 122 million active users each month. It’s no secret it has lost ground to Facebook. But with Facebook long since passing MySpace, now other social networks are nipping at its heels. On Tuesday, comScore, a market research firm specializing in Web stats, reported Twitter jumped past MySpace in unique visitors for the month of August. Perhaps most telling is the recent announcement MySpace is teaming up with American Idol—a show that has lost roughly 80 percent of its star power in the past year and is clinging to life—to audition online. This is a great matching, but that’s probably not a good thing.