Antisocial Media: The Rise and Fall of Friendster

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When software engineer Jonathan Abrams arrived in Silicon Valley in 1996, the internet was known for three things: vast amounts of information, pornography, and anonymity. If users weren't investigating the first two, they were exploiting the third to argue about movies or politics, their unfiltered opinions unencumbered by concerns over embarrassment. People were known only by their screen handles.

Abrams, who came to California to program for the web browser Netscape, had an idea. What if people could use their real names, faces, and locations online? Instead of having an avatar, they'd simply upload their existing personality in the form of photos, profiles, and interests. They could socialize with others in a transparent fashion, mingling within their existing circles to find new friends or even dates. Strangers would be introduced through a mutual contact. If executed properly, the network would have real-world implications on relationships, something the internet rarely facilitated at that time.

Abrams called his concept Friendster. Launched in March 2003, it quickly grew to host millions of users. Google began talks of a lucrative buyout. Abrams showed up on Jimmy Kimmel Live, anticipating the dot-com-engineer-as-rock-star template. His investors believed Friendster could generate billions.

Instead, Friendster's momentum stalled. Myspace became the dominant social platform, with Facebook quickly gaining ground. Abrams, who once appeared poised to collect a fortune from his creation, watched as copycat sites poached his user base and his influence waned. What should've been a case study of internet success became one of the highest profile casualties of the web's unrestricted growth. It became too big not to fail.

 

Many businesses rely on a creation myth, the idea that a single inciting incident provides the spark of inspiration that turns a company from a small concern into a revenue-generating powerhouse. For publicity purposes, these stories are just that—fictions devised to excite the press and charm consumers. Pierre Omidyar, who programmed AuctionWeb and later renamed it eBay, was said to have conceived of the project to help his wife, Pamela, find Pez dispensers for her collection. In fact, there were no Pez dispensers. It was a fable concocted by an eBay marketing employee who wanted to romanticize the site's origins.

In early press coverage of Friendster, there was little mention of Abrams looking to monetize the burgeoning opportunities available online. Instead, he was portrayed as a single man with a recently broken heart who wanted to make dating easier. Abrams later said there was no truth to this origin story, though he did derive inspiration from Match.com, a successful dating site launched in 1995. Abrams's idea was to develop something like Match.com, only with the ability to meet people through friends. Instead of messaging someone out of the blue, you could connect via a social referral.

Human-shaped icons represent the concept of social networking
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Following stints at Netscape and an aggregation site called HotLinks, Abrams wrote and developed Friendster for a spring 2003 launch. He sent invites to 20 friends and family members in the hopes interest would multiply. It did, and quickly. By June, Friendster had 835,000 users. By fall, there were 3 million. Facebook's launch in February 2004 was months away, and so low-key that Abrams met with Mark Zuckerberg to see if he'd consider selling. If an internet user wanted to socialize in a transparent manner, Friendster was the go-to destination.

When users signed up for the site, they were only allowed to message people who were within six degrees of separation or less. To help endorse unfamiliar faces, Friendster also permitted users to leave "testimonials" on profiles that could extol a person's virtues and possibly persuade a connection to meet up in the real world.

Naturally, not all mutual connections were necessarily good friends: They might have been acquaintances at best, and the resulting casual atmosphere was more of a precursor to Tinder than Facebook. One user told New York Magazine that Friendster was less a singles mixer and more "six degrees of how I got Chlamydia."

Still, it worked. The site's immediate success did not go unnoticed by venture capitalists, who had been circling popular platforms—America Online, Yahoo!, and, later, YouTube—and injecting start-ups with millions in operating funds. At the time, the promise of savvy business minds flipping URLs for hundreds of millions or even billions was a tangible concept, and one that Abrams kept in mind as he fielded an offer from Google in 2003 to buy Friendster for $30 million. It would be a windfall.

Abrams declined.

 

Investors—including future PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Google investor K. Ram Shriram—advised Abrams that there was too much money to leave on the table in return for short-term gain. Abrams opted to accept $13 million toward building out the site. He sat on the board of directors and watched as backers began to strategize the best path forward.

Quickly, Abrams noticed a paradigm shift taking place. As a programmer, Abrams solved problems, and Friendster was facing a big one. Buoyed by press attention (including the Kimmel appearance where Abrams handed out condoms to audience members, presumably in anticipation of all the relationships Friendster could help facilitate), the site was slowing down, unable to absorb all of the incoming traffic. Servers struggled to generate customized networks for each user, all of which were dependent on who they were already connected to. A page sometimes took 40 seconds to load.

The investors considered lag time a mundane concern. Adding new features was even less attractive, as that might slow the pages down further. They wanted to focus on partnerships and on positioning Friendster as a behemoth that could attract a nine- or 10-figure purchase price. This is what venture capitalists did, scooping up 10 or 20 opportunities and hoping a handful might explode into something enormous.

But for business owners and entrepreneurs like Abrams, they didn’t have a portfolio to deal with. They were concerned only with their creation. Its failure was all-encompassing; there weren't 19 other venues to turn to if things didn't work out.

Two word balloons represent the concept of social networking
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Abrams saw the need for a site reconfiguration. The board was indifferent. Eventually he was removed and assigned a role as chairman, an empty title that was taken away from him in 2005. As the board squabbled over macro issues, Abrams watched as micro issues—specifically, the site itself—deteriorated. Frustrated with wait times, users began migrating to Myspace, which offered more customizable features and let voyeurs browse profiles without "friending" others. Myspace attracted 22.1 million unique users monthly in 2005. Friendster was getting just 1.1 million.

 

By 2006, Friendster was mired in software kinks and something less tangible: a loss of cachet among users who were gravitating toward other social platforms. Though Abrams was out, investors continued to pour money into Friendster in the hopes that they could recoup costs. In 2009, they sold to MOL Global for $40 million, which would later convert the site into a social gaming destination. But it was too late. Though the site still had an immense number of users—115 million, with 75 million coming from Asia—they were passive, barely interacting with other users. By 2011, user data—photos, profiles, messages—was being purged.

In ignoring the quality of the end-user experience, the decision-makers at Friendster had effectively buried the promise of Abrams's concept. They sold off his patents to Facebook in 2010 for $40 million. Coupled with the MOL sale, it may have been a tidy sum, but one that paled in comparison to Friendster's potential. A 2006 article in The New York Times reported with some degree of morbid fascination that if Abrams had accepted the Google offer of $30 million in 2003 in the form of stock, it would've quickly been worth $1 billion.

In the years since, Abrams has tinkered with other sites—including an evite platform called Socialzr and a news monitoring app called Nuzzel, which is still in operation—and tends to Founders Den, a club and work space in San Francisco. He's normally reticent to discuss Friendster, believing there's little point in dwelling on a missed opportunity.

The site did, ultimately, became a case study for Harvard Business School—though perhaps not in the way investors had intended. Friendster was taught as a cautionary tale, an example that not every good idea will find its way to success.

A Quick History of Hidden Camera TV Commercials

Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube
Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube

At restaurants like Tavern on the Green in New York and Arnaud’s in New Orleans, diners sitting down for formal meals are seen complimenting the waiter on their coffee. Just a few moments later, they’re informed it wasn’t the “gourmet” brew typically served, but a cup of Folgers Instant coffee that had been “secretly switched.” The surprised patrons then heap praise on their duplicitous waitstaff.

This scene and others like it played out hundreds of times in television commercials throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Variations date as far back as the 1950s, and some commercials—like Chevrolet's now-infamous 2017 spot that depicted amazed onlookers marveling at the car company's numerous J.D. Power and Associates Awards—still air with regularity. Instead of using actors, the spots purport to highlight the reaction of genuine consumers to products, often with the use of hidden cameras positioned outside the unsuspecting customers' field of vision.

 

Despite skepticism, the people in these ads are often members of the general public offering their unrehearsed response to beverages, laundry detergents, and automobiles. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s not a little bit of premeditation going on.

The idea of recording spontaneous reactions for advertising purposes dates back to the 1950s, when Procter & Gamble arranged for housewives to compare the whiteness of laundry washed in their Cheer detergent against the comparatively dingier load that resulted after a soak in the competition. The camera wasn’t “hidden” and the spokesman made no secret of his intentions—he was holding a microphone—but the women were approached in a laundromat and not a casting office. Those who appeared in such spots would receive a $108 fee, along with residuals that could add up to thousands if the commercial aired repeatedly.

This approach was refined by Bob Schwartz, a former director of the prank series Candid Camera. In 1969, Schwartz formed Eyeview Films and worked with ad agencies to capture spontaneous reactions to products. An early spot for the floor cleaner Spic and Span was a hit, and other companies and agencies followed the template. For a 1982 spot, Schwartz set up his crew in a supermarket and invited customers to try Oven Fry, a new frozen chicken product from General Mills. The most expressive reactions (“mmm-mmm!”) were invited to consent to be in the commercial.

In more controlled settings, it’s necessary for advertisers to make sure the pool of potential testimonials is suited for the product. Before filming spots like the Folgers tasting, a team of market research employees typically recruited people by inviting them to take part in polls on the street. They’re asked about coffee preferences—the better to establish whether they even like the beverage—and were then invited to a nearby restaurant for a free meal. Out of two dozen couples selected for a Folgers spot in San Francisco in 1980, two or three were selected for the commercial.

 

The Folgers spots aired for years and were memorable for how surprised people appeared to be that they had just consumed granulated crystals instead of fresh-brewed coffee. But that doesn’t mean viewers necessarily believed their reactions. A 1982 consumer survey found that consumers often found their endorsements too stiff, meaning they were prompted, or too natural, which hinted that they might be actors. Though ad agencies went to great lengths to assure authenticity, their praise made audiences dubious.

Why would non-actors shower products with compliments? It takes a bit of psychology on the part of the ad agencies. For Chevrolet's 2017 spot that was ridiculed for people overreacting to the mere sight of a car, one of the participants—who asked to remain anonymous due to a non-disclosure agreement—told The A.V. Club that the upbeat environment and surreal exposure to a new car after agreeing to take part in a market research survey left his group feeling like it would be rude to say anything negative.

“We never retook a take, but you felt really bad about saying something negative about Chevy because there were 50 cameras on you, and it was just this one [host],” he said. “He did this magic trick of making it seem like you were hurting his feelings if you said anything bad about Chevy. You didn’t want to see this guy stop smiling. It was really bizarre.”

Candid? Sure. As candid as if they were among friends and not a squad of marketing executives? That's a different story.

The Great Bart Simpson T-Shirt School Ban of 1990

Courtesy of The Captain's Vintage

At Lutz Elementary School in Fremont, Ohio, principal William Krumnow took to the public address system to deliver an important message. It was April 1990, late in the school year, but Krumnow’s announcement couldn’t wait. Over the intercom, he declared there would be a ban on T-shirts featuring Bart Simpson, the rebellious breakout star of The Simpsons.

Specifically, Krumnow was concerned with a shirt that featured Bart aiming a slingshot with the word underachiever emblazoned in quotes above him. “And proud of it, man!” Bart said. This, Krumnow felt, was an unnecessary bit of subversion in a place of learning.

"To be proud of being an incompetent is a contraction of what we stand for," Krumnow told Deseret News in May of that year. "We strive for excellence and to instill good values in kids … the show teaches the wrong things to students."

Krumnow was not alone. School district administrators in Florida, California, Michigan, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. were cracking down on the surge in Bart shirts, fearing his status as a miscreant would be the wrong kind of role model for kids to emulate.

 

The apparel ban was a result of the success of The Simpsons, which had premiered months earlier on December 17, 1989 and featured a dysfunctional nuclear family consisting of Homer and Marge Simpson and their children, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. It was an immediate hit for the fledging Fox network and led to a number of merchandising deals.

Bart Simpson of 'The Simpsons' television series is pictured on a T-shirt
Amazon

While the entire cast of the show was marketable, it was 10-year-old Bart who became the licensing phenomenon. An estimated 15 million Bart shirts were sold in 1990 alone, and there was no mystery as to why the character appealed to kids: He loved skateboarding. He hated school. He was a mirror image of millions of students across America. But unlike many of those students, Bart refused to censor himself, wielding a sharp tongue to match his spiky hair.

“Eat my shorts,” read one of the shirts. “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” asked another.

While some of the shirts, which were priced from $11 to $14, weren’t as inflammatory—Bart urging “Don’t have a cow, man” was the top-seller—the more incendiary designs were what upset school officials. The language was inconsistent with what school districts considered to be appropriate attire, and several dug deep to justify prohibiting students from wearing them. They cited concerns that other students might find the words objectionable or offensive and believed Bart's rogue attitude was incompatible with a respectful environment.

At Memorial Junior High School in Lansing, Michigan, principal James Shrader got on the intercom to inform students the shirts would not be allowed. At Burnham Elementary in Burnham, Illinois, district superintendent—or, as Ralph Wiggum might say, district Super Nintendo—Al Vega was pleased no students had even attempted to wear the shirts.

“Hopefully it’s because parents feel the same way I do,” Vega said. “Why would parents allow kids to wear those to school? I, as a parent, am not going to let my kid wear that to school.”

 

Not all parents were on board with the ban. Orange, California's Jeannette Manning told People she was considering buying a shirt for her son “on principle.” Another mother, Maira Romero, couldn't understand why her 11-year-old son Alex was being reprimanded for wearing the shirt. "I’d much rather have him wearing a Bart Simpson [shirt] than one of those rock and roll T-shirts with the skull and crossbones on it,” Romero said.

Cartoonist and creator of "The Simpsons" stands 1992, with a cardboard cutout of Bart Simpson
'The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening stands next to a cardboard cutout of Bart Simpson in 1992.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Child development experts weren’t so sure, either. Some pointed out that when something is labeled off-limits, it becomes more attractive to teens who are prone to rebellion. Ignoring it and dismissing it as a fad was a better option, some said. At Wells High School in Chicago, principal David Peterson dismissed the idea the shirts had any kind of negative influence.

“It’s like a kid saying, ‘I hate school,’” he said. “Am I going to suspend him for that? I don’t think so.”

Students caught wearing the Bart shirts faced a variety of repercussions. At Brookwood Junior High in Glenwood, Illinois, teachers ordered students wearing the shirts to call their parents and have them bring a change of clothing. Other schools forced kids to turn the shirts inside-out. Some had teachers cover the offending words with tape. The controversy grew so widespread that by the summer of 1990, retail chain JCPenney decided to take the “underachiever” shirts off shelves in kid’s sizes. What some had dubbed the Bartlash had reached new heights.

 

Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, thought the shirt prohibition was silly. “I have no comment,” he said when asked about the backlash. “My folks taught me to respect elementary school principals, even the ones who have nothing better to do than tell kids what to wear.” But Groening couldn’t resist pointing out that the word “underachiever” appeared on the shirt in quotes, indicating that it was his (fictional) school officials who had given him that label. Bart was simply playing the hand he had been dealt.

Bart Simpson of 'The Simpsons' television series is pictured on a T-shirt
Amazon

“He didn’t call himself an underachiever,” Groening said. “He does not aspire to be an underachiever. If you’ll recall, this last season, Bart did save France.” (In “The Crepes of Wrath,” which aired in April 1990, Bart is sent to France as a foreign exchange student and exposes his two winemaking hosts who spike their product with antifreeze. He learns French in the process.)

While The Simpsons has gone on to broadcast another 30 seasons of television (and counting), observers who considered the shirts to be fads were correct. The furor quickly died down and kids found new iconography to wear. By June 1991, Simpsons shirts had been discarded in exchange for the cast of Fox’s other hit series, the sketch comedy In Living Color. (Homey the Clown was a bestseller.)

Today, you can find vintage Bart shirts on eBay or online clothing shops like The Captain's Vintage, which offers a classic Bart "Who the hell are you?" shirt in white for $89.99.

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