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Friendster founder on the rise and fall of America's first big social network

July 23, 2009 |  3:00 am
Jonathan-abrams-friendster
Friendster founder Jonathan Abrams at the Tech Policy Summit in San Jose in 2007. Courtesy of Abrams

Facebook, with more than 250 million active users, and Twitter, the fastest-growing social network, might be all the rage right now.

But they have to give props to Friendster, the social network that paved the way and contributed many of the key concepts behind online connections.

Before the founders of a little-known social network called ConnectU cried foul about Facebook stealing its ideas, MySpace was replicating then-top network Friendster, according to Friendster founder Jonathan Abrams.

"I don't think there's anyone who has had their stuff copied more than me," Abrams said over lunch in San Francisco recently.

In a previous post on our interview with Abrams, he credits himself with the creation of the friend request system, a vital piece of the online social networking puzzle. But he soon learned that being first doesn't necessarily mean you'll come out on top.

Work on Friendster began in 2002. The site launched in March 2003 and by autumn, it had more than 2 million users requesting and accepting friendships and filling out personal profiles. The company was experiencing extraordinarily fast growth and was having trouble keeping up, Abrams said.

To fund the ballooning beast, Abrams sought funding from venture capitalists and secured enough to keep the ship afloat -- for a while.

Within a few months of a successful fundraiser, Abrams was ousted as chief executive. He didn't say whether the heave-ho had anything to do with the $30-million buyout offer he turned down from Google. But over the next two years, Friendster had four different people at its helm and a host of problems inside and out.

"I actually stuck around through 2004 and 2005, trying to help Friendster," Abrams said.

The problems were beyond his control. Coping with the torrent of growth in 2004, Friendster replaced the shaky computer systems that had been running the site with "worse technology," Abrams said.

Meanwhile, Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson, founders of MySpace, had built a competing product that ...

... was just beginning to catch on. Other rivals, including Tribe.net and Google's Orkut, were too complicated, Abrams said.

MySpace's success, Abrams said, could be attributed to how overwhelmingly similar it was to Friendster, rather than trying to change the formula too much as others had. Add to that the crucial detail that for most of 2004, Friendster simply didn't work for many users.

"MySpace wasn't even amongst the first 50 copycats of Friendster," Abrams said. "If hundreds of people are copying you, competing with you and your stuff is not working, you're going to get in trouble."

"MySpace was basically saying, 'Hey, we copied it. And our site works. So, use us instead,' " Abrams said.

Looking at the situation from the inside, Abrams laughed at all of the colorful reasons that reporters and bloggers had painted for the mass exodus from Friendster to MySpace. Was it the allure of being virtual friends with fake celebrity profiles?

"Facebook, I think, eventually demonstrated that people do see value in real identities and real friends," Abrams said. "I don't know why people necessarily want to follow Ashton Kutcher. But I think that's more interesting than following the pretend Ashton Kutcher, right?"

But Abrams conceded that MySpace's targeting of a younger crowd could have contributed to its success. It boiled down to "bands and attractive, sexy people," Abrams said.

"They opened it up to minors, which hadn't even occurred to me for the legal and safety reasons," Abrams said. Regardless, "the real reason that Friendster got supplanted by MySpace in the U.S. was that MySpace's website just worked and Friendster's didn't."

As we reflect on the roots of the social networking phenomenon, it's important to note that Friendster is still around. The company is currently looking at ways to continue to grow its product in the Philippines and parts of Asia, where it's still relevant. MySpace, meanwhile, is looking to redefine its public image. And Facebook, the worldwide leader, is fighting off Twitter, the current media darling.

Abrams is out of the game of trying to build the premier social network. Even as a user, he's "a little burned out," he said.

Instead, he's focusing on his newest Web start-up, Socializr. The website aggregates event invitations you receive from friends using his former competitors, MySpace and Facebook, as well as his latest competitor, Evite.

Even if the social networking hype dies down, he thinks his new project will be safe.

"People aren't going to stop having birthday parties," he said.

-- Mark Milian

Follow my random thoughts on technology, the Internet and Web start-ups on Twitter @mmilian.

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