Remember Friendster? Thought so

A decade ago, the social-networking world was a very different place than it is nowadays, with several contenders for the crown. Most didn't make it, but Facebook did.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
4 min read
In the summer of 2004, the Web site Friendster identified its top competition: tier one included the likes of MySpace, Orkut, Multiply, Hi5, Tribe, LinkedIn, and Blogger. Tier 2 featured Tickle, Ryze, Classmates, Match, Xanga, and topping the list of second class social networks, a little-known company called Facebook.

On the list were some notable also-rans, some forgotten also-rans, the now-second most successful social network, some blogging platforms, and a dating Web site.

Needless to say, the online world was a very different place a decade ago. Social networkers of a certain age remember Friendster, the then-Mountain View, Calif.-based site that launched in 2002 and allowed users to fill out an online profile and connect with people they knew in real life. The site lives on today as a Malaysia-based social gaming site, but in 2004 it ruled the social-networking world. "Facebook was on the radar as, 'Hey, there's this interesting social network with college kids that's doing well,'" said Dan Olsen, Friendster's senior director of product at the time. But other than that, it was too early to see the juggernaut Facebook would become.

In 2004, Friendster was atop the social networking world. Dan Olsen
As Facebook celebrates its 10th birthday today, it's the clear cut winner of the social networking wars -- at least the first phase of it. But in a parallel universe, it could have been some other service that would count almost 1.25 billion people as its users, and the film "The Social Network" might have been about some other, well, social network.

From where Olsen stands, the most masterful thing Facebook did while growing the site was having an effective launch strategy. "I don't know if they did it deliberately, but they started at one US college campus, then another, then another," he said. "When you control your roll out like that, you can control scale."

Friendster, Olsen concedes, was plagued with technical problems due to the fast growth of the site. He remembers getting e-mails that said, "I love Friendster, but there has just been one too many times where I couldn't log into my account. So I'm going to go to MySpace." For Friendster then, it was not about a decline in users, but an inability to grow as fast as competitors. Olsen, who now runs a consultancy for Web and mobile companies, gives a presentation about the lessons learned from the front lines of Friendster at different conferences from time to time.

Facebook, of course, famously started in CEO Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm room and absorbed the university's student body as its first market. Then it expanded to other colleges in the Ivy League. Then other colleges. Then broader and broader until a significant chunk of the planet got on board. Not only did the gradual widening of the inner circle stop the engineers from becoming too technically overwhelmed with growth, it also created allure. (I can attest. As a high school senior, many of my friends eagerly awaited the day their .edu e-mail addresses were registered, because that meant they could join Facebook.)

But as exciting as that exclusivity was, the game changer was when the company decided it was not just going to serve the youth market but the general public, said Charlene Li, co-founder of the research firm Altimeter Group. "It was pretty counter-intuitive," she said. "If [Zuckerberg] had asked users, "What do you want?," they would have never said, "Add my parents."

Usurping the usurper
We know how history played out. MySpace beat out Friendster, and in 2007, Facebook finally overtook MySpace in traffic.

So is that cycle over? Facebook is a tech giant humming along. This past quarter, the company made $2.59 billion in revenue, and has finally learned how to make money on mobile -- a problem facing every modern tech firm. So perhaps Facebook is simply not vulnerable to the up and comers nipping at its heels.

Dan Olsen
Li, from the Altimeter Group, thinks the window for usurping has closed, at least in one sense. "When you have the scale of something like Facebook, it doesn't take a lot of innovation to stay on top," she said. "They just need to be good enough."

For his part, Zuckerberg knows the power of resiliency. Over the past 10 years, the social network has been both prized pig and punching bag. In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Zuckerberg reflected on the missteps people make when trying to grow a young company.

"Whenever I speak to entrepreneurs, they always ask me what mistakes [they] should try not to make," he said. "I actually think that the thing is, you're just going to mess up all this stuff, and we have [as well]."

Every social network that ultimately succumbed to Facebook made its share of mistakes. Friendster didn't scale well. Nor did it expand its feature set to give its users more to do. MySpace gave its users too much room for creativity, and eventually there was little cohesion in how each member's profile looked or felt.

As Zuckerberg said, Facebook has made mistakes too. Most recently, Facebook Home, a software bundle for Android phone, flopped. Facebook Credits never took off. And after going all in on HTML 5 for its mobile apps, the company had to rebuild from scratch to create native apps for each operating system. Still, he's made enough good moves to render the bad ones ultimately inconsequential.

Of course, you stay on top by neutralizing potential threats. Which explains why Facebook bought Instagram and made a reported $3 billion bid for Snapchat, the disappearing photo app that's so popular with teens.

And in terms of learning from the past, Facebook is aware of this danger, even if acutely. Last May, Olsen made his presentation at Facebook's campus, in front of a room full of product engineers.

Correction, February 5, 4:47 p.m. PT: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated where Friendster was based in 2002. It was based in Mountain View, Calif.

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