Notes on the "Death" of Friendster

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Techcrunch reports that Friendster, a pioneer of social networking, is going to wipe out photos, blogs, comments, testimonials, comments, and groups on May 31st.  Reading through the comments and some of the thoughts of friends and acquaintances, it’s fairly easy to see some consensus forming: that “Friendster is dead,” and would be part of a running “body count” of social networks that have gone the way of the 404 (or some other more apt analogy).

It’s hard to argue with the obvious that a Darwinian (or to be more accurate, Spencerian) flavor is present in social networks after the seeming dominance of Facebook in the social networking space.  Only the fit social networking sites survive, and it just so happens that Facebook and Twitter are the fittest of them all.  I’d venture to say that nobody uses Friendster anymore.  From the looks of things, what was once a vibrant and exciting community of friends and users has somehow ebbed into relative obscurity in favor of social networks driven by apps and APIs, and where entire digital marketing disciplines cover just one or two mega-platforms.

I won’t claim to be an “expert” on social media or anything, but I’d just like to stick my neck out and say that maybe – just maybe – the idea that “Friendster is dead” is wrong.

For those interested in the sociological dynamics of social networking – and compelling case studies of Friendster in action – danah boyd’s papers are a good place to start.  Yet it isn’t as much an “end of an era,” where the probable norm come May 31st is for people to write eulogies dedicated to Friendster.  While we wouldn’t know just yet what Friendster would become other than being a site dedicated to “entertainment and fun,” there are lessons that can be gleaned and learned from this (digitally) historic event.

First: what’s clear at this point is that Friendster would change, it would not necessarily die. Evolution is not necessarily death, but adaptation (that’s why “x is the new y” is a dangerous pronouncement to make: many computers, for example, still run IE6).  From what we do know, it won’t go the way of Geocities.  While I may probably be sucked into the spin by saying that, I personally think that an “entertainment and fun” direction, coupled with the ability to openly and freely develop applications within reason and a more limited set of restrictions, is a good thing.  It’s good not only for agencies and brands: but also for users, consumers, and people who happen to do development work on platforms.  Right now, the closed, restrictive platform that is Facebook can cause a lot of problems not only for the creative side but also for the production side.  Should Friendster offer a way out of the impasse by opening a more open platform for “entertainment and fun” (the report says it will leverage Facebook Connect), it may be a player again in the field.

Second: for all intents and purposes, Friendster is a far more personal network than Facebook.  The analogy I often use is that Friendster is a slumbook, and Facebook is a newsstand.  While it reflects the changes in the way we use social media, it underscores a need to make social media more personal.  I’m not talking about customizing CSS backgrounds (how many of us loved the tartan and the Jansport dots, and so many others those eyestrain-inducing glitter backgrounds), but that messages in Friendster (read: testimonials) were more resistant to being swept away by endless status updates, changes in applications, and other factors that make Facebook an bad repository for storing memories.  Memories are as social as social can be, and somehow the ability to construct yourself in Friendster is much more apparent than in Facebook.  In many ways, it’s also Friendster’s undoing: you can represent yourself enough in Friendster to be anything other than who you are.

Third: I think Friendster’s “death” only creates new opportunities in something as dynamic and fluid as social media.  With hundreds of social networks out there, it’s interesting to note that we only know of a dozen social networking services that have closed shop, and in the case of 360, Kickstart, and Mash, their mother company (Yahoo!) is still alive and kicking, only repositioned in a way that it becomes a gateway to social networks, or supports social networks altogether.  I wouldn’t say that Friendster’s movement would be a complete game changer, but I would say that the way it’s positioned now is proof of concept of how our definition of “social media” can change to include or exclude things that we hold now to be true.  Things, as the old adage goes, are not always what they seem.

Fourth: coming from that last statement I think that Friendster – should “entertainment and fun” be implemented – doesn’t “die as a social network,” but just adds a new nuance to an already heavily nuanced scope of social networking.  Remember:we almost always define “social networking” as a representation of the user (a profile) within a frame of social connections (friends), and Friendster is not getting rid of that.  The activities within the platform may be different, but it is still fundamentally social.  Whether or not agencies, brands, and users would see opportunity in “entertainment and fun” remains to be seen, but that is ultimately the challenge to Friendster en route to its purported and alleged swan song.

Fifth (and this would probably ruffle feathers): I think that the “Facebook is dominant” story is a narrative that’s a bit too “Western,” or one made under the shadows of a behemoth.  A cursory evaluation of Friendster says that there’s still activity there; at least in my account, you can still feel a pulse for usage.  A Nielsen report shows that forums are big in Australia, bulletin boards are the norm in China, and Orkut is still bigger than Facebook in India.  Maybe – just maybe – we’re blinkered by the “dominance of Facebook” in our own lives and experiences that we forget that this behavior may not be universal and shared even within our wired world.  Even comScore shows that while Facebook is in the lead in the US, an average of around 60,000 to 70,000 unique visitors still go to MySpace.  The number of unique visitors in LinkedIn and the number of unique visitors on (gasp) Twitter are quite the same, at around 20,000 to 25,000 people, even if a whole lot of advertising is put on Facebook.

(I could go on and on about this, but that’s for another time: the gist being that Facebook does not equal “social media.”  While Facebook is the closest we can come to realizing potentials as we see now.  The often magnified percentage of people who are on Facebook are there in great part due to the other slices of the pie that belong to other social networks).

Is Friendster dead?  In my non-expert, un-guru opinion, I won’t count on it just yet.  To say that Facebook and Twitter are the be-all-end-all of all social networking would be to underestimate the complexities and intricacies of a very nuanced digital environment, tied in to the way we construct ourselves and relate to people on a daily basis.  From a marketing perspective I would underscore opportunities, but from a social perspective I would underscore nuances.  Those nuances are the things that can make Friendster live, and even kick ass, if cards are played right.

For the moment, at least, backing up all those memories is an important thing to do.  For all its failings, and for all the disgust our Facebook-spoiled selves have directed towards Friendster, I think it’s still a better storehouse of memories.  They could have retained that function, at least, on top of whatever “entertainment and fun” means.

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