Originally published in LA Weekly.
Make New Friends
...but beware of fakesters
These are my four degrees of separation: My friend Dubin (favorite music: Von Von Von) invited me to join Friendster in May of 2003, just after she returned from a visit to Oakland where Friendster was blowing up. She, in turn, was invited by LosingMyMojo (member since April 2003), who was asked into the fold by the enigmatic Robbf (interests: fake meat products), originally invited by Sharilyn (who wants to meet “fellow paper collectors”).
I’m not alone. By the end of November, Wired News had run a story about “the Friendster abandonment trend.” Citing poor customer service and strict policing of user profiles (my GI Joes, it turns out, are in violation of the User Agreement), the article warned that “the bottom line for Friendster may be that it misread the needs” of its users.
The trend has since been borne out by Friendster’s declining user statistics. Last fall, when it received $13 million in venture-capital funding, it boasted 1.7 million unique visitors per month, but by June that number had dropped to less than 1 million, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. The site has also faced competition — both in the form of rival sites like Google’s Orkut.com, offshoot sites like Dogster.com (an online place for dogs to meet) and parodies like Fiendster.com. Friendster’s business model has yet to materialize, but with the hiring of former NBC exec Scott Sassa, there’s a feeling that the site may use its social-networking leverage to transition into some kind of media or portal site.
Like any fad — Razor scooters, wearing clothes backward, trucker hats — how quickly Friendster caught on and spread was determined by the people who first “discovered” it. Duncan Watts, an associate professor of sociology at Columbia and author of Six Degrees: The Science of the Connected Age, credits Friendster’s recruitment strategy for much of the site’s early success. “It’s a very good strategy, having friends ask you. You only want to join Friendster on the condition that a lot of other people join it. How well these things succeed depends very heavily on people who need just one recommendation.”
Creating a community, though, is a tricky business. Communities have a thing about being organic — their dynamics don’t fit easily into pre-made molds. Communities often come together for shared interests — sports, romance, political causes. Friendster is trying to be a community whose reason for being is as a community.
The need is certainly there. Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.org, says, “People have an enormous craving for better ways of connecting with people.” The rise of Friendster had everything to do with the people who were first attracted to the site and what they were looking to use it for. But there was no single reason, and users came for very different purposes. Some found a new tool they could use to get in contact with other people. There were also those who saw it as a form of entertainment — people who created fake Friendster profiles, like my GI Joes. The world of the Fakester was all about creating a witty profile and collecting similarly witty testimonials. And the creation of the Fakester population defined the other segment of users: the Realster, a term for someone who posted an actual profile, in keeping with the intent of the site. (Of course, the concept of “real” in online personals is almost hopelessly compromised. Did you really read Underworld? Is Dookie really one of your favorite albums?)
Friendster, to the Realsters, depended on a community vision of honesty and a common standard of contact. Friendster founder and chairman Jonathan Abrams saw the Fakesters as immediate threats to the community, and started deleting their profiles. This irked the people who were creating Fakesters — the very same people who made the site popular to begin with. In a confusing twist, Friendster has recently allowed DreamWorks to post fake profiles of the characters from Anchorman — an about-face in policy and a clear violation of its own user agreement.
It wasn’t the only option. The online world has faced this problem before. EBay, a site whose success relies on establishing faith in the reality of its sellers, created ratings for its users. It doesn’t guarantee perfection, but it allows the community to punish “bad” users and reward “good” ones. Like eBay, Friendster is a site whose entire content is user-created. Besides some rigidly hip T-shirts (“Do it with your friends,” reads one), underwear and hats, it offers nothing for sale, and no services beyond connecting people. Its entire value comes from the quality and quantity of its users.
“If people are running a community site because they love what they’re doing,” says Newmark, “and aren’t expecting to flip it for a lot of money — there’s a difference between a site like that, [which] speaks with a human voice, and [a] site that speaks with a corporate voice. And if you’re thinking about yourself as a corporation and are intending to make a lot of money, people are going to have a different sense about you.” Newmark has also had to deal with the vagaries of online transactions — like real estate brokers posting their listings on the no-fee and by-owner sections of the New York Craigslist rental listings, but he lets the community itself do most of the policing.
The real challenge to online social networks, as Newmark sees it, will be the ability to differentiate between various types of connections. He says, “We need ways of connecting online that fit better, that recognize strong versus weak ties.”
This article originally appeared in the August 6-12, 2004, issue of LA Weekly.