This is the second part of a series on early social networks. Read Part 1: The Roots of Social Networking Sites
These days, if you mention a social networking site exploding in popularity and making its founder rich, people automatically assume you are talking about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. And if you ask about an epic failure in social networking, they will almost always think MySpace.
But these are far from the first sites that made it big, and MySpace is certainly not the first to came crashing down after a lot of hype. This article will continue to recap some of the first social networking websites and trace their stories.
TheGlobe.com: Riding the Bubble
Nearly a decade before Zuckerberg started developing Facebook in his Harvard dorm room, a duo of Cornell students were hard at work on their own social networking project.
Todd Krizelman and Stephan Paternot were both 20 years old when they launched TheGlobe.com in 1995. The site’s mission was to become a global online community, and TheGlobe.com allowed users to personalize their online experiences by publishing content and connecting with others with shared interests. In the mid-1990s, these were relatively new concepts on the web.
Below are the descriptions that appeared on TheGlobe.com for two different “Cities,” areas on the site for users to network and interact:
Singles City has Forums and Interest Groups for singles seeking fun. Flirt, vent, get or give advice, compare your dating experiences, and meet new friends.
Film City is the City for Tinseltown lovers. Movies, reviews, and celebrities are up for discussion every day. Perfect your member site, and maybe your name will be in lights!
(text courtesy of the Wayback Machine)
Over the next few years, TheGlobe.com grew immensely, and Krizelman and Paternot got caught up in the buzz of the growing dot com bubble. The success of their website got them an appearance on the Oprah Show and their story was covered by numerous mainstream media outlets.
In November 1998, the site had gotten so popular that the founders decided to go public. The Initial Public Offering would prove to be historic, as it rose from an offer price of $9 to a high of $97 before closing at $63.50. To date, this is the largest first-day gain of any IPO.
Just two years later, however, TheGlobe.com stock was trading at 53 cents and was delisted from the NASDAQ. So what exactly happened? The company hired a high profile CEO to take it to the next level, but most everything started to fail. The dot com bubble had burst, advertisers were fleeing, and despite a huge user base, the company did not have a good method of monetization. (This is long before advanced ad targeting based on user data.)
In an email interview with The Industry Standard, Paternot said the following about the site’s original mission:
“We thought the real power of the Internet was in helping people share their own thoughts with each other, and that interactions amongst themselves, now on a global level, would be far more valuable and revolutionary (and cost effective) than what non-interactive mass media had offered until then.”
This quote is interesting because it sounds the same as the hyped benefits of Web 2.0, and something that we have heard to describe blogging, Twitter, or the latest social network.
What does it mean that the very same message was being said in 1995, at the inception of the public internet?
The “Next Generation” of Social Networking
In the late 1990s, a new era of social networking dawned. This “next generation” is not necessarily chronological, as there is some significant overlap with earlier sites, but it marks the emergence of social networks that offered new features and look more like what we are used to today.
This includes the emergence of features such as user profiles, which became a central feature of social networking sites. Next, users were allowed to compile lists of “friends” and search for others with similar interests. Many sites began to develop more advanced features for users to find and manage their list of friends.
Classmates.com allowed people to identify with their high school or college and surf the network for colleagues, but users could not create profiles or list their friends until years later. In its early years, people basically just linked to each other via their email addresses.
SixDegrees.com was the first social networking site to combine these features. The service allowed users to create profiles, list their friends and, starting in 1998, surf their friends’ lists. This is significant as it is the first public display of connections, a key concept in social networking.
Although SixDegrees attracted millions of users, it also struggled mightily with monetization, and it closed by 2000. Even with the public flocking to the Internet en masse, most individuals were hard-pressed to find a large network of friends who were also online, and users complained that there was not much to do after accepting a Friend request.
Friendster: Epic Growth and a $30 Million Mistake
Friendster, the next big name in social networking, launched in 2002, and was designed to help friends-of-friends meet. Interestingly, it was designed to compete with dating sites such as Match.com. Most existing dating sites linked strangers with shared interests, and Friendster’s founders thought that connecting friends-of-friends would be more effective in fostering successful romantic relationships.
The site reached 300,000 users just through word of mouth, and in 2003 the mainstream media began to cover Friendster. In 2003, Google offered to buy Friendster for $30 million, which was declined. The Associated Press has called this one of the biggest blunders in Silicon Valley history, and the site would start to tank shortly afterwards.
Friendster’s servers were not ready to handle such huge growth, and the site experienced regular downtime. But another important factor in its decline was cultural, as explained by Danah Boyd, who researches social networking:
“Because organic growth had been critical to creating a coherent community, the onslaught of new users who learned about the site from media coverage upset the cultural balance. Also, huge growth meant a collapse in social contexts: Users had to face their bosses and former classmates alongside their close friends.”
Today, the Friendster domain is used as a social gaming site operated from the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore.
These issues of community are also seen in today’s social networking sites. Could Facebook or Twitter suffer a similar collapse? Or have they achieved such a critical mass that there is now no turning back?