Antisocial Media: The Rise and Fall of Friendster

iStock
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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.

Spit Take: The Story of Big League Chew

Amazon
Amazon

Rob Nelson watched the kid’s ritual with curiosity. It was the mid-1970s, and he and the kid were in Civic Stadium in Portland, Oregon, both working in the service of the Portland Mavericks, a rogue baseball team operating outside the purview of Major League Baseball. Nelson was a fledging player who sometimes got on the field but mostly stuck to selling tickets and coaching youth baseball camps. The kid, Todd Field, was the batboy. And what Field was doing fascinated Nelson.

Field, who couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12, took a Redman chewing tobacco pouch from his pocket, scooped out of a bunch of gunk, and stuffed it between his cheeks and gumline. Then he’d let the black goo dribble down his chin or hock it in the dirt.

Chewing tobacco was a common sight among the athletes, but Nelson hadn’t seen many kids take up the habit so early. He approached Field and asked if he was dipping, the common parlance for stuffing tobacco in one’s cheek pockets.

Field hocked another glob of brown discharge at the ground. He showed Nelson the tobacco tin, which was full of black licorice. Fields had minced it up so that he could replicate the muddy color of the real thing.

The exchange planted a seed in Nelson's brain. As a kid, he had done something vaguely similar, stuffing his mouth with bubblegum to resemble his idol, Chicago White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox. What if, he wondered, kids could emulate their heroes without the health consequences or parental scorn that accompanied real tobacco?

The package for Big League Chew shredded bubble gum is pictured
Amazon

Not long after, Nelson found himself in the team’s dugout with Jim Bouton, a onetime New York Yankee who had been ostracized for writing a tell-all memoir, Ball Four. Nelson shared his idea for a novelty faux-tobacco product with Bouton, but with something of a twist: Instead of licorice, he would use shredded bubblegum. He might, he said, call it Maverick Chew, or All-Star Chew.

Bouton was intrigued. As the two watched the Mavericks players jog around the field and dip real tobacco (neither man had ever taken up the habit) they agreed it would be an idea worth pursuing. Nelson would develop the product and Bouton would try to get it distributed. Bouton would also be the sole investor, sinking $10,000 into Nelson’s idea.

The Mavericks disbanded in 1977, but the partnership between Nelson and Bouton endured. Nelson, who worked for a pitching machine company, visited Bouton after the pitcher signed with the Atlanta Braves in 1978, and the two conspired further on Nelson’s shredded gum idea. Nelson purchased an at-home gum-making kit that he saw an ad for in the pages of People magazine and got to work producing a batch of the stuff in the kitchen of Field’s parents. Hoping to mimic the tar-like color of Field’s concoction, Nelson used brown food coloring, maple extract, and root beer extract in the gum. The result was predictably terrible.

Despite a lack of a viable prototype gum, Bouton did his part by pitching the idea to several baseball-affiliated companies. (The former Yankee put his own likeness on the mock-up pouch.) Topps and Fleer, which produced bubblegum cards, politely rejected him. He eventually ended up at Amurol, a subsidiary of the Wrigley Company, one of the largest chewing gum conglomerates in the world. In a coincidence, Amurol engineer Ron Ream had been working on a shredded-gum project for several years. Rather than brush Bouton off, the company embraced the idea of a gum that would be sold in a pouch and was a play on kid-friendly chewing tobacco. They even liked the name Nelson had settled on: Big League Chew.

Ream had successfully developed a formula that solved the problem of the tiny ribbons of gum, using enough glycerin to make sure it wouldn’t stick together and become a useless clump in the package. Amurol, however, didn’t take to Nelson’s other big idea, which was to make the gum brown. While the chewing tobacco homage was obvious, they didn’t want to completely replicate the experience. The gum would remain pink.

In 1980, Amurol conducted a sample rollout at a 7-Eleven store in Naperville, Illinois. When executives came back from lunch, the 2.1-ounce pouches had sold out.

That first year, Big League Chew rang up $18 million in sales, capturing 8 percent of the bubblegum market. Amurol’s other products all together hadn’t totaled more than $8 million. (Nelson and Bouton received a percentage of sales.)

Nelson’s hunch had been correct: Kids loved the facsimile chew, which sold for between 59 and 79 cents a pack. Candy distributors in Orlando reported selling 25,000 pouches a week. Copycat products like Chaw came and went. Little Leaguers and amateur ballplayers could take out as much gum as they wanted and stuff the rest in their pockets. But the association with tobacco, which wasn’t meant to be taken literally, upset some parents. They feared Big League Chew could become a "gateway" gum—bubblegum one day, tobacco and oral cancer the next.

Nelson and Amurol took the criticism in stride. Nelson was often quoted as saying he personally detested chewing tobacco and considered this a solution to, not the cause of, a tobacco habit. A California bill that would have banned the gum, candy cigarettes, and other products meant to resemble tobacco died in the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee in 1992. Kids continued to dribble grape, strawberry, and other fruit-flavored gum on their shirts. Amurol experimented with gum branded with Popeye’s likeness, colored green and meant to resemble spinach. It did not enjoy the same success.

Nelson bought out Bouton’s interest in Big League Chew in 2000 and has remained with the brand ever since, including a move from Wrigley—which was sold to Mars Inc. in 2008 for $23 billion—to Ford Gum in 2010. Sales have hovered around $10 to $13 million annually and there have been no confirmed reports of children being indoctrinated into a chewing tobacco habit as a result.

In February 2019, the package depicted its first female player. In the past, it has featured a variety of artwork and the likenesses of several retired players. In 2013, two active players—Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies (now with the Chicago Cubs)—were pictured. But despite its name, Big League Chew has never had any formal affiliation with Major League Baseball. The MLB has instead maintained relationships with Bazooka and Double Bubble.

The lack of any official MLB endorsement hasn’t hurt. At last count, more than 800 million pouches of Big League Chew have been sold.

Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER