It seems like almost everyone I know has at least one social media account, if not multiple accounts across multiple platforms. According to Forbes magazine, the top 5 most downloaded social media apps in 2020 were TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter. While that’s no surprise to many of us today, twenty years ago, the dawn, rise, and future of social media seemed to be heading in a very different direction.
Touted as one of the first social networking platforms, Friendster had it all: some of the top engineers in Silicon Valley, high-powered investors with deep pockets, and a product that the world didn’t even know it wanted until Friendster provided it. There were others that came before, but Friendster was the first social networking site to really take off, registering more than three million users in its first year. Not to mention, being first on the scene allowed Friendster’s talented team of engineers to create and patent the technology that made social networking possible. Many of these groundbreaking patents would eventually be sold to Facebook for nearly $40 million.
Unfortunately, the rising star couldn’t quite manage to maintain it’s trajectory. In 2006, Friendster’s CEO Kent Lindstrom admitted that the platform never had the infrastructure in place to keep up with the demands of a rapidly increasing fanbase. Users were frustrated by slow page download speeds and other technical issues, and once Friendster began hemorrhaging users to upstarts like MySpace and later Facebook, it was never able to fully recover it’s position of prominence and eventually succumbed to obsolescence.
But Friendster did so much for the emerging social networking scene, and I don’t think it gets enough credit for the lessons that it’s ultimate demise was able to impart on future platform owners. In 2013, a “Friendster Autopsy” dug deep into what kills a social network, and one of the primary discoveries was that, because the platform was built on the foundation of connecting to friends of friends of friends, as people started to leave, there was no one left to connect to. Friendster’s problem was that it didn’t do enough, there was nothing to entice users to stay once their friends left and the connection pathways were severed.
Friendster was the original “People You May Know”, and Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and numerous other modern social media apps have done a great job of integrating that idea in order to help people make new connections, re-discover old ones, and keep feeds current with new sources of ideas and opinions.
Friendster was also one of the first examples of an online community that could be used to foster real-life connections, making it a precursor to apps like Bumble and Tinder, which have contributed to altering the way people date, find friends, and the perception of meeting online.
But the newer social media platforms have also done something Friendster never did: everything else. By adding groups, games, shops, news articles, image and video sharing, and other user-generated content in addition to facilitating connections, platforms like Facebook were able to stay relevant and continue to rise in popularity even today.
Friendster may have only had a limited amount of time in the sun, but the framework that it contributed to the world of social networking still stands. Without Friendster, it is possible that we would never have developed the social media culture that is so pervasive in the world today.