Alison J. Harris

Librarian

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The Life and Times of Friendster

 

Reading about the history of social network sites brought back memories of my experiences first using social media. I can recall from what seems like ages ago having a MySpace account, being asked if I had a Facebook account for the first time, along with using LiveJournal on a regular basis. Social media has definitely changed a lot since then.

An article from the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication gives a great history of social media, particularly regarding early successes and failures.  Friendster was one of the most interesting case studies discussed.

Friendster launched in 2002 as a social complement to Ryze and competitor with Match.com. While most dating sites focused on introducing people to strangers with similar interests, Friendster was designed to help friends-of-friends meet, based on the assumption that friends-of-friends would make better romantic partners than would strangers.

When Friendster’s popularity surged, the site encountered technical and social difficulties. Friendster’s servers and databases could not handle the rapid increase of new users, and the site faltered regularly, frustrating users who replaced email with Friendster. In addition to this, the onslaught of new users who learned about the site from media coverage upset the cultural balance. Furthermore, rapid growth meant a collapse in social contexts and users soon had to face their bosses and former classmates alongside their close friends.

The initial design of Friendster restricted users from viewing profiles of people who were more than four degrees away (friends-of-friends-of-friends-of-friends). In order to view additional profiles, users began adding acquaintances and interesting-looking strangers to expand their reach. Some began massively collecting Friends, an activity that was implicitly encouraged through a “most popular” feature. The ultimate collectors were fake profiles representing iconic fictional characters: celebrities, concepts, and other such entities. These “Fakesters” outraged the company, who banished fake profiles and eliminated this feature. While few people actually created Fakesters, many more enjoyed surfing Fakesters for entertainment or using functional Fakesters (e.g., “Brown University”) to find people they knew.

The active deletion of Fakesters (and genuine users who chose non-realistic photos) left users feeling alienated. Many early adopters left because of the combination of technical difficulties, social collisions, and a rupture of trust between users and the site.

I never used Friendster, but its history was enlightening, since it clearly illustrates the public opinion of SNSs at the time as well as the changing user-centered attitude towards the web, which now can be defined as Web 2.0.

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January 11, 2014 , Comment

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