Friendster’s (and Social Nets’) Gawkiness and Worthless Users

I’ve been pretty successful at breaking my Techmeme addiction, but every now I get sucked in. That was the case with Max Chafkin’s Inc.com profile of Jonathan Abrams of Friendster fame. I haven’t read the famous HBR case study on the company, but Chafkin has some insights into what what went wrong:

Friendster’s engineers were so preoccupied with day-to-day slowdowns that they neglected to step back and ask what was causing them….”There was this leadership battle on top that was like a war in Valhalla,” says Chris Lunt, who joined Friendster in 2003 and took over as director of engineering when Winner left in late 2004. “Everybody had their own agenda.” The result was a kind of corporate schizophrenia. Rather than improving the software, Friendster went on a partnership binge, resulting in a hodgepodge of incongruous and poorly integrated features…

The piece also argues that the appeal of social networking lies more in “gawking” than it does in building relationships:

The lure of Friendster–and, to a much greater extent, MySpace–was not the elegant web of connections but rather the opportunity to gawk at strangers. Rather than using Friendster to make dates, most of its users were simply cruising around and looking at the weird interests, pictures, and blog-droppings of strangers (including so-called “fakester” profiles of Jesus and Burt Reynolds). Real-life connections, the core of Abrams’s vision, were not quite as relevant as he’d imagined.

Finally, the article raises the uncomfortable notion of the “worthless” user:

Lunt remembers marveling sometime in early 2004 at how Friendster’s traffic would mysteriously spike at 2 a.m. Intrigued, he started looking at the site’s log. Oh, my God, he thought, everyone is from the Philippines. … more than half the site’s traffic was coming from Southeast Asia.

From a business standpoint, the revelation was devastating. Friendster, it turned out, was paying millions of dollars a year to attract eyeballs that were effectively worthless to its advertisers.

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